Frederick Wiseman’s 32nd film, a harrowing yet contemplative 196-minute exploration of domestic violence, mostly unfolds in and around staff meetings, intake interviews and group therapy sessions at the Spring, a shelter for battered women and their children in Tampa, Fla. This is a particularly viewer-friendly movie for the veteran documentarian: Although, as always, Wiseman eschews all voiceover narration, an incongruous troop of little old ladies touring the facility affords a wealth of exposition just when the audience needs it. And the concentration on recognizable inmates who reappear at various stages of the rehabilitation process encourages identification as it renders the film’s careful structure more apparent. Opening for a two-week run at N.Y.’s Film Forum, and slated to air on PBS in the fall with “Domestic Violence II” (a companion-piece sequel which follows similar cases through the court system), the film will likely attract a lot of non-theatrical play at the educational and advocacy level, given its hot-button topic and its “objectively” sympathetic portrayal of both the women and the facility.
Wiseman shows almost nothing of the violence that is his subject, except for one badly bloodied woman in the opening segment. While she’s carted away in an ambulance, a neighbor’s run-on litany to the cops about the husband’s frequent alcohol-fueled rages, and the wife’s subsequent cover-ups and refusals to prosecute reveal the cyclical nature of the abuse. Indeed, the framing segments of cops called in to talk down men and women teetering at the edge of explosion, although occupying relatively little time, viscerally bring home the strip malls and tract housing, the racism and unemployment from which these women come.At the core of the film, of course, are the war stories the women recount, their language vividly coming to life as they bounce off one another’s anger and shame. For many of the women, this is the first community they have known (“I wasn’t allowed to talk. This is the most fun I’ve had in my whole life”), since their abusers systematically cut them off from family and friends, even confiscating their wallets and bank accounts to limit their mobility. The patients are intoxicated with their newfound ability to articulate their grievances.
The counselors’ friendly, unflappable ability to deal with all problems great and small implies a familiarity that has bred neither hopelessness nor contempt. Yet even they grapple with demons — what to do, for instance, about a little girl who attempted suicide at the shelter, and where to place her brother, himself both victim and victimizer.
Like Wiseman’s “Welfare,” “Domestic Violence” is a film about language, but where in “Welfare” the language of the people warred with the language of bureaucracy, here institution and inmates strive for synthesis. The women’s need to bear witness to their abuse, and their desire to share that knowledge through the medium of the movie obviates the usual caveat leveled against Wiseman’s documentaries — that the presence of the camera substantively changes the reality being filmed.
Jarring zooms in and out and changing focal lengths unconnected to narrative, in fact, constantly call attention to the camera, breaking the voyeuristic fascination. At the same time, the drama of the women’s experience, like their occasionally glimpsed scars and bruises, incites a certain prurient interest in the audience, avid for details, particularly in the course of a three-hour-plus, institution-bound documentary where there’s precious little else to titillate the senses.
Yet it’s a measure of the effectiveness of Wiseman’s slow immersion process that, by the final sequence, when a man rants to the police about the woman who’s driving him crazy, confiding to the cops that he “loves her to death,” his words echo ominously in the wake of the departing squad car.