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HBO stays on the case of intimate violence after others move on

The Sun's David Zurawik talks about the HBO documentary, 'Private Violence,' on WYPR FM's 'Take on Television.'

Where has all the media concern for victims of domestic violence gone?

That's what I was thinking last week as I looked at TV lineups in vain for featured reports, stories or episodes of series about domestic abuse. And then I found the HBO documentary, "Private Violence," premiering at 9 Monday night, and it almost made up for the medium's short attention span.

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Remember the flood of coverage in the two weeks immediately after TMZ posted the video on Sept. 8 showing Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee Janay Palmer?

Led by television, the media binged on domestic violence in the immediate aftermath — and I mean that in a good way. The evening news on NBC and CBS led two nights with the story of the video and fallout from it. The lineup of stories included in-depth reports and analysis. News and sports cable channels ran all day for several days with aspects of the Rice story, the NFL's handling of it and the sociology of domestic abuse.

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Indicative of what some saw as a rising consciousness and sensitivity within the mainstream media, the terms "private violence" and "intimate violence" started to be used on TV along with "domestic violence" in describing the kinds of abuse some victims suffer behind closed doors in their own homes from husbands, boyfriends and partners.

"The term 'domestic violence,' I think the adjective is bad," USA Today columnist Christine Brennan said on a Sunday-morning cable TV show Sept. 14 as she and I discussed the media's handling of the Rice story. "It's wrong because it makes it sound like a husband and a wife in the kitchen, and we don't belong in the conversation. Well, clearly now, we do."

I left the Washington TV studio that morning sharing the feeling that progress was being made in media understanding, sensitivity and commitment to having an informed, continuing national conversation about the issue.

And then, as the media always seem to do, we moved on to new stories, leaving the issue of domestic violence before most of its deeper truths and complexities could be explored even in this Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I was angry about that until I saw "Private Violence."

Watching "Private Violence" is a tough emotional experience. At points, the sickening abuse inflicted on one of its central characters, Deanna Walters, by her estranged husband, Robbie, is almost too much to bear, even in the form of after-the-fact photographs.

The pictures were taken by police and medical workers in Oklahoma after Deanna and her 2-year-old daughter, Martina, had been kidnapped by Robbie. He forced his daughter and wife into his tractor-trailer and, while his cousin was at the wheel, he beat Deanna with everything from a supersized flashlight to his fists for 41/2 days as their daughter watched.

The veteran highway patrolman who eventually pulled the truck over in Oklahoma and discovered what was happening to Deanna in the sleeping compartment of the cab said he had never seen a human body as horribly mangled and injured as hers — not in decades of investigating car wrecks, murders and industrial accidents.

The pictures support his words — and then some.

And yet, for all that, Robbie and his cousin were allowed to drive on to their home in North Carolina as Deanna and her daughter were taken to a hospital.

The storyline that drives "Private Violence" is the effort by Kit Gruelle, an advocate for battered women in North Carolina, to find justice for Deanna. It's a long, hard, frustrating slog.

Viewers will see and hear Deanna repeatedly asked by law enforcement officials why she didn't simply leave Robbie, especially when he and his cousin stopped for gas or food on the cross-country trip.

"There were lots of ways I thought of getting away," Deanna says. But she feared Robbie would catch her and hurt her and her daughter even worse than he had already done.

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"I thought he would see [an attempt at escape], and kill me," Deanna says. "And I was worried what would happen with Martina."

One of the triumphs of this film is that by the end of it, you will not be asking such questions. You will start to appreciate the complexity of the psychological dynamic involved in being the victim of such abuse. You will ask instead how a civilized society lets it happen.

Viewers will see and hear a North Carolina prosecutor explaining to Kit that even if she took the case and won, Robbie might be sentenced to only 150 days in jail on charges of "misdemeanor assault against a woman." That was the best Deanna could hope for under North Carolina law — the pictures notwithstanding. And the prosecutor clearly didn't want the case.

The state prosecutor did, however, suggest Kit find a federal prosecutor who would be willing to go after federal charges of kidnapping and transporting Deanna and her daughter across state lines.

Ultimately, Kit finds one in Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimlani Ford, who decides to prosecute Robbie under the Violence Against Women Act, which recently marked its 20th anniversary.

One of the secrets of many great HBO documentaries involves finding the right people with the kinds of righteous stories through which complex issues can be made understandable and moving.

Cynthia Hill, who produced and directed the documentary, struck gold with Deanna and Kit, who come to embody sweetness and grit by the end of the film. Yet neither is depicted in a one-dimensional way on their journey to justice. Hill synthesizes and humanizes a complex issue without dumbing it down or compromising the story.

Hill said the documentary took six years to make. She set out to do a film about advocates for battered women, and that it was Kit who served as her guide into the world of domestic abuse.

"She's the personal storyteller, and she provided me with both the access and the context," Hill said in a telephone interview last week.

"As for Deanna, when we met her, she was a victim," Hill added. "We're kind of careful about using that word. But she truly was a victim. And what we were able to capture with her and her story is watching a victim transform into a survivor. ... And just watching that transformation, and understanding there can be hope, tells us that as sad and depressing as this can be, there are things we can do. I thought that was a really important message to leave an audience with."

"Private Violence" is a tough film to watch, but then domestic abuse is a tough subject, one mainstream society has long been more than happy to look away from. How many male NFL executives and owners explained their improbable claims that they hadn't seen the Rice video before TMZ posted it by saying they had no real interest in seeing it?

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said last month that he had "zero desire" to see it.

I wish every owner and player in the NFL would see "Private Violence." But that's probably too much to ask.

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Let's just be grateful that Hill and HBO stayed with their story long after most other media would have packed up and moved on. In the tradition of the best and most moral non-fiction filmmaking, "Private Violence" bears witness to something many of us would rather ignore. And in doing so, it forces us to look honestly in the mirror to see who and what we are as a society.

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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