Amid Domestic Abuse Headlines, HBO Doc 'Private Violence' to Air "At Exactly the Right Time"

Cynthia Hill Private Violence HBO H 2014
Michael Loccisano/Getty for HBO

Cynthia Hill Private Violence HBO H 2014

Said Gloria Steinem: "The same way that racism is a white person's problem, violence against women is a men's problem"

On Sept. 8, a moment of violence burst into the public sphere as footage surfaced of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice clocking his then-fiancée Janay Palmer. The video sparked a national conversation about domestic violence: Some questioned why Palmer didn't leave Rice, while others deemed it a private family matter not to be discussed by the media at large.

It also makes for serendipitous timing for the release of Private Violence, an HBO documentary that zooms in on the intricacies of domestic violence, the women it affects and the tireless work of advocates.

"It's hard to imagine an issue that we ignore so flagrantly as we do domestic violence," director Cynthia Hill told a packed HBO Theatre on Monday night in New York City. "Despite the fact that every day in this country, three women die at the hands of their intimate partners, we think it's none of our business. It's a private matter, and when it does dare enter the public sphere, we ask, 'Why didn't she just leave?' "

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Private Violence has been 12 years in the making, as advocate and domestic violence survivor Kit Gruelle came upon the idea while "getting her shit together" and gardening. "It clears up a lot of misconceptions about what women actually deal with in this country," Gruelle tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It’s not like an episode of Law and Order or CSI or whatever; it's much more complex."

Though the project initially languished due to a lack of funding, it picked up steam when renowned activist Gloria Steinem got involved just shy of a decade ago. Steinem tells THR of domestic abuse's cultural origins, "It’s the invention of gender roles, masculine and dominating roles in order to control women’s bodies for reproduction."

As October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the doc will air Oct. 20 at 9 p.m. on HBO. "Gloria times Gloria times Gloria," Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, told The Hollywood Reporter when asked why she picked up the title. "Gloria called me and said, 'I want you to see this film,' and when Gloria speaks, I listen. I probably wouldn't have this job if it wasn't for Gloria."

The film — which centers on Deanna Walters, who was kidnapped and brutally beaten by her estranged husband for 4½ days — addresses the bone-chilling fear instilled in victims and issues with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, among other topics. Viewers are spared witnessing the actual physical abuse; there is no footage of knockout punches, but there are audio clips and images of the aftermath. Such visual representation wasn't necessary, said Hill: "Ultimately, it is a film about surviving. It shows the complexity of these issues that you don’t get from the headlines."

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It also spotlights advocates' efforts, as Deanna transforms from victim to survivor. "This work done to end violence against women — a great proportion of that work has gone on behind closed doors," Gruelle explained. "In shelters, in courtrooms, in the back rooms of courtrooms, sitting in the emergency department, whatever. It’s powerful and it’s wonderful work." Hill, who joined the project as director six years ago, decided that focusing on Gruelle's advocacy was a priority. "I lied to her! I told her, 'I'm filming the people around you. I’m not really filming you.' But I was so moved by her — I had never seen this behind the scenes."

The filmmakers commented on the doc's timing as well: "Just recently, some of the most powerful interest in the country, from the White House to the NFL, have finally taken off their blinders and have been forced to take a hard look at domestic violence for the massive societal epidemic that it is," Hill explained in a post-screening Q&A. "It both pains me and also gives me hope that this film seems to be coming out at exactly the right time."

"We’re never going to have democratic countries, or peaceful countries until we have democratic or peaceful families," added Steinem. "The same way that racism is a white person's problem, violence against women is a men’s problem. ... There are many courageous men all over the country who have groups that stop rape and [are] against violence, and are really trying to escape from this ridiculous idea that half the human race is supposed to control the other half. … The goal is to be whole people."