Programme Notes: Battered

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It’s not a big deal, I’m just another battered woman.
Battered (1989)

Of actor and filmmaker Lee Grant’s many powerful documentaries, Battered is perhaps the most immediate and harrowing. The opening moments set an uncompromising tone. In grainy black and white video footage, a woman recounts in unsparing detail the violence she has suffered at the hands of her husband. Her face is swollen and bruised, her words halting but clear. Moments later we learn this woman’s name and her fate. Shortly after this testimony was filmed Lisa Bianco was dead, murdered in the street in broad daylight by her former partner as their two daughters looked on.

By choosing to open with this unflinching footage, Grant makes a clear statement. Battered places the voices of victims and survivors of domestic front and centre. As the film unfolds, Grant will go on to speak to police officers, judges, lawyers and even perpetrators to offer a wide ranging exploration of domestic violence in 1980s America, but she never loses sight of the women who stand at the heart of this story. Their voices, their words and their bruised bodies, stand as evidence of the urgency of this issue.

The question of who is seen and heard was of utmost importance to Grant. By the time she began making documentaries, Grant had already experienced the power of being onscreen, as an acclaimed actor in films such as Heat of the Night (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Shampoo (1975), This success, however, had come after a period of intense struggle. In the early 1950s, just as Grant was beginning to establish herself as an actor, she became the target of an anti-communist purge and was placed on the blacklist, where she remained for 12 years. Her career as an actor resurged in the 1960s, but the feeling of being silenced stayed with her.

Thanks to this experience, when Grant began directing she brought with her a heightened sensitivity to the issue of who is given space to speak on camera. This preoccupation is clearest in her documentaries, which explore pressing social issues such as homelessness (Down and Out in America, 1986), transgender identity (What Sex Am I?, 1985), female incarceration (When Women Kill, 1983) and industrial action (The Willmar 8, 1981). These films were commissioned by HBO, and Grant used the opportunity to speak directly to national television audiences in their homes to make confrontational, unflinching, activist work. Fiercely feminist, Grant’s films often centre women’s voices, and in doing so they offer a clear challenge to America’s vision of itself as a land of freedom and opportunity.

Battered begins by centering Lisa Bianco’s face, voice and story, before opening up to make space for other women to tell their stories. The result is a multidimensional portrait which challenges stereotypes of “battered women” and directly takes on common myths about domestic violence. Miriam describes how her estranged husband broke into the apartment while she was showering and attacked her with a knife, leaving her needing 100 stitches and with a body criss-crossed by scars. Another woman, who Grant meets in a domestic violence shelter, describes her experience of abuse as a hostage situation, comparing her trauma to the PTSD suffered by Vietnam veterans. The mother of Selena Johnson, a police officer who was murdered by her ex-husband (also a police officer) rails against systemic sexism in the force. “I don’t care what jobs [Selena] was in,” she says when Grant asks why the police didn’t protect her daughter. “She was still a woman. And it’s a man’s world.”

Grant is skilled at connecting these personal stories to systemic failure and wider social misogyny. In Battered she draws direct connections between domestic violence and related offences such as coercive behaviour and stalking (which was not made illegal in the US until 1996), as well as highlighting the way that women are left exposed by the judicial system. Grant herself never appears on camera, but we hear her voice off screen, gentle but probing, unafraid of asking uncomfortable or taboo questions. Grant’s audible emotional investment in her subjects distinguishes her style from the professional distance we normally see with hardened reporters. As her interviewees speak, we sometimes hear Grant gasping in horror off screen. Her deep empathy is most apparent when she talks to children, whose accounts reveal the emotional wounds left on families affected by domestic violence. In one poignant scene, Grant interviews Miriam’s children, who witnessed their mother’s stabbing. One daughter explains that she never wants to get married or have children, because she feels men “are all the same.” Meanwhile her younger sister dreams of being a police officer, so “I can arrest men like my father.”

The most revelatory part of Battered comes at the end, when Grant turns her focus to the male perpetrators. Grant films therapy sessions in which men convicted of violence reflect on their behaviour. By this point we have heard many stories and seen many scars, watched footage of several funerals and heard devastating interviews with bereaved family members. It would be easy to leave the story there, with the lingering sense that these men are beyond hope, but Grant chooses to resist this narrative. She never apologises for or plays down the severity of what these men have done, but she does provide room for their voices too. The men who she interviews are painfully human, damaged men who reflect on their actions with shame and disbelief. Grant tries to find some kind of reason for their violent actions, and as she pushes these men to discuss their own lives she uncovers stories childhood trauma, sexual abuse and legacies of violence spanning generations. The interviews with male perpetrators that come at the end of Battered are confrontational and difficult to watch at times, but by refusing to simply write these men off as monsters Grant makes an unfashionable case for empathy and understanding in all directions. Ultimately, her argument is that we need to understand the deep social and cultural roots of domestic violence in order to address it. In our fiercely polarised culture, conversation across political and social divisions can feel impossible, but Grant’s point remains relevant and thought provoking. The noxious rise of alt-right influencers such as Andrew Tate and recent high profile cases of gendered violence, remind us that this problem is not going away. Battered makes a case for the importance of listening, talking across divides and establishing dialogue - a radical message at the time that perhaps feels even more provocative today.

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