Sitting in front of a decaf coffee at Parker & Otis restaurant in Durham, filmmaker Cynthia Hill is trying to catch her breath.
It’s been a hectic few weeks, but that’s what happens when your documentary is selected to screen at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, one of the nation’s most prestigious film showcases. And when HBO comes calling soon after, also wanting to pick up the movie – yes, things can get hectic.
Glancing at her buzzing cell phone, Hill takes a deep breath.
“When I check my email, I’ll probably have 20 emails from sales agents, Sundance people, party-throwers,” she says. “It’s a little overwhelming, but I’m not complaining.”
Hill’s feature-length documentary, “Private Violence,” is scheduled for its world premiere Sunday at Sundance, one of 16 films selected for the U.S. documentary competition. The film is making waves all over, and rightly so – it’s a tough, compelling and important documentary about the knotty and tragic issue of domestic violence.
It’s a daunting topic, and the statistics are stunning: More than a third of all female murder victims in the U.S. are killed by a domestic partner, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Thirty-five percent of all emergency room calls are attributed to domestic violence. On average, three women are murdered by their partner each day in the U.S.
But there are no statistical graphs or talking head interviews with experts – standard fare in an issue-oriented documentary – in “Private Violence.” Instead, Hill focuses on a handful of North Carolina women – victims, survivors and case workers – and tells their stories in detail.
Specifically, “Private Violence” focuses on the harrowing story of one North Carolina woman, Deanna Walters, whose then-husband reacted violently when she fled his abuse with her young daughter. He abducted the two and drove them cross-country in a tractor-trailer rig, where Walters was tortured in front of her child in November 2008.
We’re also introduced to Kit Gruelle, a victim’s advocate who is also a survivor of domestic violence. Since the mid-1980s, Gruelle has worked for public and private agencies, helping abuse survivors and agitating for legislative action.
We meet other victims and case workers, and in several key moments the film plays like a tense thriller or courtroom drama. It tracks Walters’ case through law enforcement and state and federal courts, and reveals the tangle of complex issues that victims must navigate even after the abusive relationship has ended.
In one of the film’s most infuriating sequences, we see medical photos of Walters’ grotesquely bruised face, taken from hospital admittance files at the time of her abduction. Then we hear from attorneys who reluctantly concede that, under North Carolina law, the most likely charge would be misdemeanor assault.
Walters’ husband was convicted of federal charges of interstate domestic violence and kidnapping after forcing Walters and their 2-year-old daughter to accompany him on a trucking trip from North Carolina to California and back through Oklahoma, where the truck was stopped by local police. According to evidence presented at trial in 2010, he repeatedly beat her in front of the child.
He is serving a sentence of 250 months in federal prison. In pronouncing the sentence, U.S. District Judge Richard L. Voorhees called Howell’s conduct “cruel and prolonged, merciless and calculating,” adding that the harsh sentence was warranted because of the “horrendous actual nightmare that the victim suffered.”
The core of the film, which is packed with scenes of startling intimacy and sequences that are difficult and painful to watch, is in the paralleled stories of Walters and Gruelle, two survivors a generation apart.
Survivor’s activism inspires
Hill’s movie touches on the intriguing flip side of the “cycle of violence” among domestic abuse victims: That when survivors work together, there can be a cycle of recovery and healing as well. Walters is studying to work as a victims’ advocate herself.
“It was very important to tell these two stories in parallel fashion, so that you can see what can happen,” Hill said. “That Deanna can come back and help others, as Kit has done. You get to see her transformation. It’s so beautiful to see this person who is beaten down – literally beaten down – and feeling as though she has no hope for justice and is fearful for her life. And to go to someone who has taken control and feels as though she has a future. It’s amazing watching that on screen.”
Gruelle predicts the film will have a significant impact.
“I think it’s going to open a lot of eyes about what battered women in North Carolina face,” she said. “When I tell people what I do for a living, they’re always like, ‘How can you do that? Isn’t that depressing?’ But really it’s this astonishing social justice and human rights movement that’s sprung up out of the activism of survivors.
“And no one knows about it other than the people that do the work. The 30-second story on the evening news is usually all people know about domestic violence,” Gruelle said.
‘Go on the journey’
“Private Violence” is an outgrowth of two earlier local projects. The first was a series of government-funded educational videos for victims called “Survivor to Survivor,” made available in libraries, women’s shelters and online. The second project, still in development, was a historical account of the battered women’s movement – a project that Gruelle initiated and continues to work on.
Hill was involved in both projects, along with others in the Triangle documentary film community. It kindled her interest in the compelling personal stories she was encountering.
The film developed gradually and organically, she recalled.
“I definitely didn’t think we were going to be making this film when we started six years ago,” Hill said. “But you have to be open to whatever presents itself. For me, it was experimenting, and that’s how I like to proceed a lot of the time. That’s how we met Deanna, and that’s how the film took its shape in the end.”
This approach is why “Private Violence” feels less like an issue-oriented documentary and more like a narrative drama in which you’re deeply invested in the characters and situations.
“I feel very strongly that, with a subject like this, I couldn’t just do issues,” Hill said. “I couldn’t have some expert onscreen telling you that this is important or that is important. To really process all this information, you need to go on this journey. You need to be engaged and invested to watch a film on this subject matter.”
So far, the approach seems to be working. Documentaries that premiere at Sundance have a good track record of moving on to successful television or theatrical distribution. And HBO has a long record of championing important documentaries.
Nancy Abraham, senior vice president of HBO Documentary Films, called “Private Violence” a unique look at the enduring problem of domestic abuse.
“We felt that the film really dug deep into the complexities of the issue showing how difficult it is for a woman to simply leave her husband and what the challenges are to prosecuting these abuse cases,” Abraham said. “We loved the fact that this was a very honest, unvarnished story, but that it ultimately had a positive message for audiences.”
A North Carolina native, Hill has been working on documentaries in the Triangle for more than a decade.
She co-founded the Durham-based Southern Documentary Fund, which helps underwrite local films, and is director and producer of the PBS series “A Chef’s Life,” a cooking series set in eastern North Carolina. Her previous feature-length documentaries include films on the tobacco industry and immigrant farm laborers.
The Sundance festival, a famous launching pad for directors, is likely to raise her profile as a filmmaker considerably. But Hill said she’s happy to be making movies here at home.
“I’m proud to be doing it in North Carolina, to be able to stay here and make films that are interesting and important to me, and that are important locally,” she said. “I didn’t do this on my own. I had very talented, dedicated people all along the way. And I just want to be able to continue.”