Domestic Violence, p.2

The former question about what constitutes acceptable violence is left deliberately confused in two separate places in the film. In a scene where a child has drawn a picture of being spanked, the caseworker is discussing it with a group of children. During a single session, discussing a single picture, the caseworker makes diametrically opposed statements to his group. At one moment he tells us -- and, more importantly, a classroom of children from abused families -- that spanking IS domestic abuse. At the next moment he reconsiders and explains that spanking does not have to be domestic abuse, if it is appropriate. Of course for this class of pre-schoolers the distinction (if there is one) is minimal. This behaviour on the part of the caseworker merely makes explicit the difficulty that society has in relinquishing any form of violence as a form of control. Violence is a prerequisite for control but, like the pre-school classroom, the justifications for its use are too often fudged or misunderstood.

The other place that the nature of acceptable violence is left ambiguous is the portrayal of the police in the film. Although the police shown in the film are scrupulously polite and act according to their best counselling workshops, they are all very heavily built and constitute a massive physical presence, dwarfing the victims with whom they interact. Not only do they dwarf them individually, the police officers also derive power and huge potential violence from their uniform-their violence is sanctioned by the law through an argument not entirely dissimilar from that the abusive husbands use. The police loom especially large as representatives of a larger organization-a power-by-association that both isolated victims and isolating abusers can understand, and one that feeds into the power structure of co-dependency that often underpins abusive domestic relationships.

By splitting his time between the Tampa police and the non-governmental shelter, Wiseman juxtaposes not only frontline police interventions with the Spring's healing processes but also the male response and the female response to the problem. We do see one policewoman and one male caseworker, but she remains all but silent in her situation while his presence merely serves to highlight the fact that the other fifteen people around the table at a caseworker meeting are all women. For all the rhetoric of inclusiveness ("the stigma for battered men is even worse" says one of the guides to a group visiting The Spring), gender roles are clearly defined. Men beat women, policemen arrest those men, and women look after the battered women. This reflects the de facto patriarchy in which we all live, a patriarchy that leaves every married man at least one woman who is, legally if not physically, weaker and more vulnerable than himself.

The historical context of the film, edited during the attacks on Afghanistan, suggests a third, global, context. The question of what constitutes a home is a timely one, coming, as it does, so soon after the invention by decree of the U.S. 'home-land.' Somewhere between Virginia Woolf's Room of One's Own and Tom Ridge's Department of Homeland Security there is a consensus that an individual, or individual nation, should have a place that is sacrosanct.

Wiseman never comments on this. He never hints at this wider meaning. His scrutiny of everyday life gains strength from its lack of metaphoricity: life is what it is and it is that way because people make it that way. He doesn't strain to make his pictures tell more than their own story. Drawing conclusions from his films tugs at their very premise, which is that life is inconclusive and there are no quick fixes.

Yet the arguments for exercising control over the vulnerable are as specious when they are uttered by an abusive official as when used by an abusive spouse. The relations between nations and their rulers - and between nations and other nations - are not the same as those between people, but they are comparable, and the abusive behaviours that leaders learn at their fathers' knees are repeated on a world stage. When rights are given up in the interests of 'security' on a national level, all of the same alarm bells should start ringing as when the son of an abusive father starts beating his new wife.

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