Unsafe Harbor

Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries have a dramatic truth available almost nowhere else in movies right now. His new film, Domestic Violence, which begins an exclusive two-week run at Film Forum on January 30, is one of his most affecting.

The film is primarily set in a shelter in Tampa, Florida, called the Spring, and from inside its institutional-white interior we observe caseworkers and abused women and children trying to make sense of their shared situation. The victims are alternately resilient, apologetic, enraged, aghast. From what we hear, it’s possible that many of these women have never felt this free to open up. One after another, they break into arias of self-revelation and disgust. A middle-aged woman in a group-therapy session says, “I was told all my life that I wasn’t worth anything,” and laughs at her own gumption in finally being able to tell her story. But hysteria roils the good cheer; like so many of the other women we see, she moves with hair-trigger sensitivity from glee to tears.

It was never Wiseman’s intention to provide anything like a cross section of the abused; for one thing, the residents of the Spring are mostly lower-middle-class and not highly educated, and we see no battered men. Still, what the film may lack in comprehensiveness it more than makes up for in depth of feeling. Regardless of how different we at first may believe we are from these people, Wiseman makes it clear we are not a class apart. In varying degrees, we are them. He doesn’t categorize their torment, or what led to it; he demonstrates how the roots of domestic violence are as tangled as the mysteries of any family.

Although the cycles of abuse recounted in this film have a sickening repetitiveness, they never degenerate into case studies. The film puts us in the same position as the caseworkers: We strive to see these sufferers whole, unobscured by social-science cant. The cant is there, all right, but somehow, in context, it becomes something else, more complicated. These caseworkers, as well as the police officers Wiseman films on their patrols, use officialese to both control volatile situations and insulate themselves from the agony of what they’re attempting to control. The jargon forms a protective shield that, in the end, doesn’t really offer much protection at all: The horror bleeds through anyway.

Wiseman shot this three-and-a-quarter-hour film over a period of two months, and took more than a year to edit it. (Along with his companion piece, Domestic Violence II, which follows abuse cases through the courts system, it will be shown on PBS next year.) As is usual for Wiseman, the film’s texture is novelistic rather than, as with most documentaries, slam-bang revelatory. There’s no voice-over narration. The tone he provides is one of principled outrage. Avoiding any comforting resolutions, Wiseman offers up moments, some decisive, some desultory, from the lives of people who then pass from our sight. Along with his cinematographer, John Davey, he opens up human experience in a way that seems both caught-on-the-sly and primal. The camera’s gaze is unwavering, as it must be, and it unifies the suffering that we see. What Wiseman doesn’t show is often as powerful as what he does: In a closing scene, for example, he films two cops responding to a call made by a bare-chested, slightly inebriated man who wants the woman he shares his home with to leave. At first, the scene plays out as a routine, nonviolent domestic quarrel – the police eventually leave without making an arrest – and you wonder why Wiseman included it. Then the enormity of what will happen after the cops leave sinks in, and the helplessness of the woman onscreen is matched by our own.

Domestic violence has been exploited in numerous TV specials and “reality shows,” but Wiseman lets the material breathe in a manner unique to the subject. At the shelter, he allows encounters between participants to play out in something like real time, and although this is a risky dramatic ploy, it makes sense here because tedium itself is part of the therapeutic process. He has too much respect for these people to simplify their condition, and his respect frees us to register a full range of emotional responses.

We can observe, for example, how many of the women try to both shamefacedly cover up their bruises and exhibit them as war wounds; we can see how the younger female victims are more voluble than many of their hardened older counterparts. Some of the women express fears that their children, having witnessed domestic violence from infancy, will in turn become violent. A few already have: In one black-comic interlude, caseworkers mull over what to do with a teenage boy at the shelter who is himself a batterer. The youngest children in Domestic Violence, playing happily in the nursery and participating in sing-alongs, have an uncomprehending fortitude; their crayon drawings, which express the mayhem they’ve seen as a kind of fairy-tale illustration, undercut the sunniness. You look into these brimming, rapt faces and wonder if they’re already lost.

Perhaps the saddest and yet most revivifying episode in the film involves a woman who checks herself into the shelter after 50 years of marriage. This decorous, fine-boned lady, with artfully applied makeup that covers her swelling, has a poignant frailty; she speaks to her caseworker in polite, apologetic tones as she recounts her miseries, and your heart goes out to her. I’ve rarely seen as much unalloyed bravery in a movie. For her and for the other women here who allowed their stories to be told, Domestic Violence commemorates that courage.

Nanni Moretti plays a psychoanalyst in the small Italian village of Ancona in The Son’s Room, which he also co-wrote and directed and which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. Moretti has a soft-spoken humor as both performer and director, but this movie about how the doctor’s family is torn apart by the unexpected death of his teenage son is a bit too awed by its depiction of the healing power of love. It’s minor indeed compared with In the Bedroom, which deals with a similar subject and doesn’t back away from the rawness of grief.

Domestic Violence
Directed by Frederick Wiseman.
The Son’s Room
Directed by Nanni Moretti; starring Moretti and Laura Morante.

Photograph Courtesy of Domestic Violence Film, Inc.

Unsafe Harbor