Want real reality TV? The hell with ”Married by America”: Watch ”Domestic Violence,” documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s harrowing yet thrilling latest project about being married in America. I say ”thrilling” because, even as ”Violence” shows us the actions, words, and inactions of people who have been dreadfully abused by their spouses or live-in companions, the human qualities on display – courage, terror, rage, and soul-deadening despair – are profound, nuanced emotions that will move and upset you. But the subtle skill of Wiseman’s filmmaking is also hypnotic; you cannot stop watching.
Violence takes place primarily at the Spring, a shelter in Tampa that provides temporary residence and long-term counseling for the abused – mainly women and their children. Wiseman’s method, which he established long ago, is to take a tiny crew into one institution at a time – earlier titles such as ”High School” (1968), ”Hospital” (1970), and ”Public Housing” (1997) tell you some of his previous subjects. He films for a prolonged period – two months in the case of ”Violence.” Invariably, he provides no narration, no background music, no quick, hyped cutting: Wiseman allows his scenes and their inhabitants’ lives to play out over long stretches. The result is that we never feel manipulated by a director imposing his point of view. (As the critic David Denby wrote in a 1990 piece on Wiseman, ”He doesn’t romanticize or politicize the oppressed.”) Instead, we become absorbed by watching lives being lived without the mediation of media; it’s as though ”Bachelorette” Trista met Ryan all on her own, went on a few dates, got engaged…and did not live happily ever after.
For many women at the Spring, life has been one long, demeaning slog, often through literally strangling relationships (it’s amazing how many women here talk of being choked as a routine method of male domination). The counselors at the Spring – again, mainly female – are heroically upbeat and encouraging as they comfort women and their children. (One little girl, witness to many arguments and beatings, looks away from everyone, smiles sweetly, and says, ”When my dad dies, I’m not gonna cry.”)
We listen to another woman describe how ”this monster has just come back” – that is, a former boyfriend who had begun harassing phone calls two years after the couple broke up now makes threats that need to be heeded. When a counselor advises her client to move, the woman – strong-looking, with a proud, deadpan demeanor – finally cracks: ”My whole life has changed because of this man; it’s not fair,” she cries. ”It’s not fair.” The Spring’s group leaders offer insights that might seem obvious to some viewers – about, for example, the isolation their partners impose, and how the numbing effects of alcohol and drugs result in a form of brainwashing – but it comes as a revelation to the shelter’s clients. To say, as one woman does, ”He had one redeeming trait – he didn’t hit the kids” is a measure of how deeply damaged all of these souls, abused and abuser, have become.