Private Violence: Sundance Review

Doc offers admirable characters and frightening stories but little new perspective.

Cynthia Hill follows a North Carolina domestic-abuse-center worker on challenging cases.

PARK CITY – A look at domestic abuse that focuses mainly on the pursuit of a criminal conviction in a single case, Cynthia Hill's Private Violence offers an interesting procedural account and, along the way, gets to know the impressively dedicated advocate, Kit Gruelle, who sees it through to the end. Though the film addresses some questions that remain a sticking point in helping abused women, it sheds little new light on them for viewers who've spent any time thinking about this upsettingly widespread phenomenon. Screenings on HBO may reach some viewers who will be enlightened, but those seeking a broad, deep take on violence in the home should look elsewhere.

Gruelle works in a number of venues: a shelter for abused women (where we watch staffers help foil an attempted attack); in courthouses and victims' homes; and in police training exercises that help young officers recognize signs of abuse they might overlook when responding to domestic disturbance calls. Late in the film she poignantly reveals her own experience of abuse, speaking insightfully about the mixed emotions that linger after being physically harmed by someone who, in saner moments, gave every sign of loving you.

Gruelle uses that insight with women like Deanna Walters, whose story we hear in pieces as Gruelle helps generate traction for a prosecution in the halls of justice. Walters became the hostage of her estranged husband in his 18-wheeler, going on a cross-country trip for four and a half days on which he pummeled and strangled her in front of their young daughter. The truck was stopped in Oklahoma, and despite horrific bruises all over Walters's face and body (we see the pictures), the state trooper allowed her husband to drive home instead of arresting him.

Issues of jurisdiction and severity of the wounds make it possible that the crime won't be prosecuted, but Gruelle finds the appropriate authorities and makes her case. The story has a happy ending, after a fashion.

Meanwhile, we glimpse other in-progress assistance efforts: trying to dig up the truth in a case where a woman was shot to death by her husband; trying to defend a woman who killed the man who punched her so many times she was permanently blinded in one eye.

The recurring question, of course, is, "Why didn't she just leave?" The complexity of that question has been addressed many times in fiction, documentaries and TV programs; if Private Violence doesn't necessarily answer it in a new way, it does perhaps add a couple more examples of how hard such an easy-sounding thing can be to do, and encourages us not to judge those whose continual returns to their abusers might seem to be an open invitation to further harm.

Production Companies: Markay Media, HBO Documentary Films

Director-Producer: Cynthia Hill

Executive producers: Cindy Waitt, Gloria Steinem, Regina K. Scully, Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettinger, Judith Helfand, Sheila Nevins

Director of photography: Rex Miller

Music: Chuck Johnson

Editor: Tom Vickers

No rating, 80 minutes