Documentary short Five Awake screened at the New Orleans Film Festival last week, appropriately timed as October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. The 35-minute documentary features five women working to strengthen Louisiana’s domestic violence laws and won best Louisiana feature at the festival.
The movie, directed by Donna Dees and Susan Willis, follows five women pushing six bills through the 2014 legislative session. The bills gave increased protection to domestic abuse victims, including granting immediate divorce to victims, prohibiting firearms for offenders and increasing the penalties for domestic abuse. Louisiana has the second-highest rate of women being murdered by men in the United States.
In addition to raising awareness, the filmmakers and women who star in the documentary hope to promote advocacy in general. “I think this film brings to light, yes, advocacy does matter. Go out there and push for things you believe in regarding policy, because at the end of the day one person can ignite change,” says Louisiana State Representative Helena Moreno, who sponsored the legislative package and is featured in the film.
Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence executive director Beth Meeks, also in the film, adds, “I hope that women and girls who see the film understand that every right they have, someone else fought for, that we have to keep fighting to gain rights and protections for other women. I want girls and women to understand that none of this stuff happens by circumstance.”
Moreno tells The Hollywood Reporter that when she first met with the other advocates featured in Five Awake, while she agreed with their goals and the scope of the legislation they wanted to fight for, she thought they were waging an “uphill battle” and trying to accomplish far too much in one year. “Maybe in the stretch of five years we can get it all done,” she remembers saying.
However, Moreno, Meeks, Charmaine Cacciopi, Kim Sport and Mary Claire Landry worked up a strong wave of public support, the bills ended up passing unanimously and then-Gov. Bobby Jindal signed them into law all within a year.
At one point, one of the legislators predicted the bill would pass, saying that sort of change happens “any time a bunch of ticked-off women comes to the Capitol,” a remark that earned cheers from the audience in the session but wound up omitted from the final version of the film, but Dees calls it one of her favorite moments that didn’t survive the final cut.
“I wanted to do a film on women activists,” says Dees about the initial impulse to make the film. “It’s always the same five women; they just have different names but they are the same types of people.” When Dees heard about the ambitious legislative package these women were trying to pass, she started filming them, initially thinking they’d be part of a movie about advocacy but soon realized they should be the focus of the film.
Dees says Five Awake is really about “making the sausage” and looking at how a bill becomes law. The film intersperses interviews with the five leads with footage from legislative sessions. One memorable moment in the documentary occurs when Moreno is asked about one of the laws that would bar those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse from owning a firearm for 10 years.
A legislator asks Moreno if this means that someone who gets convicted of this misdemeanor won’t be able to take his son hunting. Moreno tells The Hollywood Reporter she was asked this question several times. “I was like, ‘Yes. You can still take him fishing. You can still shoot a bow and arrow.'”
Dees says she’s been asked to submit the film, which also won best documentary short as the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, to a number of other festivals. Advocacy organizations have also started contacting her to screen the film.
Says Dees: “My real goal is to use this film and to take it to the other red states like Missouri and Kansas and show powerful women’s groups that if you get behind this kind of legislation, it can actually get done.”