Terrorism in the Home


Boston. -- Stacey Kabat won't make the list of Oscar glitterati. She isn't a household name, like Steven Spielberg, or a familiar face, like Holly Hunter. She's a human-rights worker and her normal venue isn't Hollywood. It's a battered-women's shelter. Or maybe a jail.

But when the cameras pan the Academy Award nominees Monday, somewhere in the dressed-to-the-nines crowd will be a 30-year-old activist in what she describes as "a little black sequin dress that is just too cute." She'll be sitting with Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich, all co-directors and co-producers of a searing documentary, "Defending Our Lives," that has copped a nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Theirs is a tough, straight-ahead film that carries the devastating drama of a human-rights report from some foreign land. But this is a very domestic report about violence on the American home front.

It focuses a lens on a group of women sentenced to a Massachusetts prison for finally and lethally striking back at the men who abused them. But the story is actually a much bigger one, about domestic violence -- what it feels like, looks like, acts like.

Stacey Kabat is a tall and intense woman who wears her humor comfortably and carries her emotions close to the surface. She ++ describes herself as a child who grew up witnessing violence in her own family. She didn't talk about it then. She didn't even have the language.

As a Bates College student, she met someone from Amnesty International and for the first time read the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Something clicked, maybe Article 5: "No one shall be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

Ms. Kabat went to work for Amnesty documenting stories of atrocities abroad. When she came back she began to spend time at a battered-women's shelter in Roxbury, Massachusetts, listening to more tales of torture. Only this was not torture by a government or an official enemy, but at the hands of a boyfriend or a husband.

"The stories were exactly like the ones people in war tell you. But this was happening to women in homes in the United States," she says simply, still incredulous.

After she met women in prison, after she'd heard them talk about men who stalked, battered, raped and threatened to kill them, she said, "I just knew that if people could hear their stories, they would do something about it."

She told the stories to two respected filmmakers, Ms. Lazarus and Ms. Wunderlich. Together the three made the documentary that has won, among other things, a Reebok's Human Rights award and now the Oscar nomination. More important to Ms. Kabat, it's won the attention of audiences who didn't know.

Some didn't know that domestic abuse is the leading cause of injury to women in our country. Some didn't know that there are three times as many animal shelters as battered-women shelters. Some didn't know that violent men aren't "out of control" but men trying to control.

"This documentary blows a hole in our ignorance and says, hello, this is how bad it is," says Ms. Kabat. "This is degrading human treatment and if it happened anywhere else in the world it would be a human-rights emergency."

Since the film was made, three of the so-called Framingham Eight prisoners -- all women claiming the battered-woman's defense -- have had their sentences commuted or suspended, one got early parole and two more have been recommended for commutation.

Ms. Kabat has founded Battered Women Fighting Back. Public consciousness on abuse is reaching what she calls a "critical mass." In the White House, there is a president who saw his own mother being abused and stopped it. Under this administration, the Centers for Disease Control has made violence its number-one issue.

Last week the American Medical Association held a conference in Washington. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala gave a public label to domestic abuse -- a phrase that would resonate with any human-rights activist. She called it "terrorism in the home."

As for the Oscars, well, terrorism is not a new subject for Hollywood. Nor is violence against women. There are enough movies in which women are battered and murdered to rival the police blotter. For once, Hollywood has recognized those who are struggling against violence. Somewhere in the audience Monday night, look for them -- three filmmakers who have made a wholly new kind of "home movie."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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