Sundance Film Review: ‘Private Violence’

Cynthia Hill delivers a vivid portrait of one leading justice advocate and one survivor of horrific spousal abuse.


Kit Gruelle, Deanna Walters, Jean Kilpatrick, Stacy Cox, Brad Johnson.

The obstacles against effectively protecting battered women and prosecuting their abusers are vividly illustrated in “Private Violence.” Rather than compiling a slew of grim nationwide statistics, helmer Cynthia Hill focuses on one leading justice advocate and one survivor of horrific spousal violence she’s representing in their shared state of North Carolina. This potent documentary is a natural for public/educational tube slots, and should have an afterlife in classroom and organizational settings.

“I feel like it’s my fault,” sobs 30-ish Deanna Walters at a women’s shelter in 2008, when there’s a frantic scramble to have police apprehend the ex-husband who’s just claimed he knows where she is and is coming for her. Needless to say, her sense of guilt is misguided: That he isn’t in jail already is remarkable, given that he’d forced her (after she’d already left him) and their young daughter on a cross-country 18-wheeler drive to California, during which he severely beat his wife repeatedly over imaginary infidelities.

Friends became suspicious about her absence, eventually resulting in the vehicle being stopped on the way back in Oklahoma, where Walters and her child were taken into protective custody. Yet incredibly, the husband was allowed to continue his trip — one he’d told Deanna she wouldn’t finish alive — even though the hospital staff called her physical condition “horrifying.” (Another doctor, analyzing the grisly photo evidence later, says he’s never seen such extreme external bruising even among car crash victims.)

What would appear to be a slam-dunk case is complicated by the fact that this particular abuse occurred out of state, Walters frequently having had no idea where they were. As a result, it was tried in a federal rather than state court. But intricacies of the law often hamper prosecution or bring only misdemeanor charges, despite life-threatening harm or threats. As far as preventing future abuse goes, advocate Kit Gruelle isn’t joking when she calls a restraining order a “last will and testament,” citing the number of cases in which U.S. women have been murdered exactly as they told authorities their spouses had threatened, after the order was issued. (Every year, some 1,700 are killed after or while leaving abusive spouses.)

Walters’ is the primary case detailed here, but we also meet other victims through Gruelle, a veteran activist and police trainer in such issues who herself was serially abused by a partner some years ago. (A muscle-mass-building obsessive, he would beat her if the peanuts on his protein snacks were insufficiently desalted.) Among these clients is another North Carolina woman, in jail on murder charges for killing the spouse who beat her so badly over the years, she’s lost sight in one eye.

It’s often asked why such women simply didn’t leave the battering relationship earlier, as if their lack of common sense were the real problem. But as pointed out here, there can be many reasons: They’ve been threatened with worse consequences to themselves and loved ones if they flee; prior complaints to authorities resulted in little real help; fear of depriving kids of a parent, or his financial support; the desire to believe the partner’s vow that this time he really will change; and the general tunnel vision that physical/psychological abuse, manipulation and isolation create in victims.

Assembly is solid, with Rex Miller’s lensing above-average for this kind of social-issue docu.

Sundance Film Review: 'Private Violence'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 25, 2014. Running time: 81 MIN.


(Documentary) An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Markay Media production in association with Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, Artemis Rising Foundation, the Kind World Foundation, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Southern Documentary Fund. Produced by Cynthia Hill. Executive producers, Cindy Waitt, Gloria Steinem, Regina K. Scully, Julia Parker Benello, Rebecca Cerese, Wendy Ettinger, Judith Helfand, Sheila Nevins. Co-producers, Malinda Maynor Lowery, Rex Miller.


Directed by Cynthia Hill. Camera (color, HD), Rex Miller; editor, Tom Vickers; music, Chuck Johnson; sound, Hill; supervising sound editor, Aaron Keane; re-recording mixer, Michel Marrano.


Kit Gruelle, Deanna Walters, Jean Kilpatrick, Stacy Cox, Brad Johnson.

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