NCFY Reports

A Different Angle: Partnering With Filmmakers to Tell Untold Stories

Deanna’s bruises cover her face like a weather pattern, rendering her features nearly unrecognizable. And while the sight of her injuries is a powerful reminder of the physical toll of domestic violence, a more benign detail in this scene is almost as telling—the frustration on her legal advocate’s face as a county judge explains that, despite the evidence on Deanna’s body, her abuser may never see a jail cell.

Deanna’s story is at the center of the film “Private Violence,” a collaboration between anti-domestic violence advocate Kit Gruelle and documentarian Cynthia Hill. When the two women met through a mutual friend, Gruelle was looking to make a short fundraising video to showcase the work of her peers advocating against domestic violence. But the footage and the story were so immediate and affecting, Gruelle and Hill ended up with a feature-length documentary that played at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and ran on HBO earlier this year.

Gruelle says the film has changed people’s perceptions of her life’s work.

“So many people just don’t understand how badly a woman can be beaten, and the criminal justice system treats it like a misdemeanor assault,” she says. “[A film about] Deanna’s case allows people to step into her world and see it’s never just about the abuser—it’s about the systems that are just as marginalizing, oppressive and dangerous as the abuser himself.”

This is what film can do for a social issue. It can make the problem specific, personal, and immediate. And it can convey the heroism and difficulty of social services work in a way that mere words or even photographs can’t match, making it an unparalleled fundraising or awareness-raising tool. And because of video’s immediacy, it’s adaptable to many different settings, from targeted trainings to wide broadcast.

 Finding the Right Filmmaker

An estimated 100,000 children are trafficked in the United States each year, says Cathy O’Keeffe, executive director of Braking Traffik, a nonprofit working to end sex trafficking in Iowa and Illinois. But despite the issue’s urgency, O’Keeffe says, until recently her agency struggled to raise awareness in the communities in which it works.

Looking to make a promotional video about her organization and its work, O’Keeffe chose Fourth Wall Films, a local production company that had made films about historically neglected groups, including Native Americans and military veterans.

“We felt comfortable that they know how to handle complex issues respectfully and professionally,” says O’Keeffe, whose collaboration with Fourth Wall resulted in the documentary “Any Kid, Anywhere: Sex Trafficking Survivor Stories.”

Gruelle felt equally comfortable with Hill, a fellow southerner with experience shooting films about social justice. Just as important for a filmmaking partnership, the two women bonded not just over a passion for the subject but also over a shared sense of storytelling.

“I knew that this issue … had to be presented in a way that the audience had never seen before,” says Hill. Including Gruelle’s perspective in the film, in addition to main subject Deanna Walters, she says, “made it possible to tell an intimate story but also broaden it through Kit and her work.”

While professional filmmaking can be expensive, you may be able to find local production crews or students who will work pro bono for nonprofits, or like Gruelle and Hill, find foundations and social-justice filmmaking groups who can help bring outside funding to the project.

Clients as Subjects

Survivors’ stories can be important prevention and awareness-raising tools for people working in fields like domestic violence and trafficking. But it’s a lot to ask those survivors to share their experiences over and over again. A benefit of film is that they can share once, and then the stories become portable.

“It is very difficult [for them] to travel from school to school to school and share to new audiences,” O’Keeffe says of the subjects of “Any Kid, Anywhere.” “They have careers and families now. Having this on a DVD allows us to bring those survivors into schools without them physically being there.”

To avoid making one person the “poster child” for trafficking, O’Keeffe and her collaborators chose a trio of women in their twenties and thirties with varied backgrounds to show that there’s no “typical” trafficking experience.

People who watch the film can see through the three stories “yes, it does happen,” O’Keeffe says. “And these are the ways how.”

Getting it Seen

O’Keeffe has shown “Any Kid, Anywhere” to private and community audiences, including at police trainings and school workshops. Initially, these events were set up by O’Keeffe and her staff. Once word spread about the video’s effectiveness as an educational tool, Braking Traffik started receiving requests for screenings. One came from the regional FBI office in Iowa, which asked to use the film as a training resource.

And while “Private Violence” found its way to HBO thanks to production support from national foundations, Hill and Gruelle say in-person screening have been the most effective at spreading their anti-domestic violence message. The women were recently hosted by the University of Cincinnati’s law school, which sponsored multiple showings and invited community members.

Victims, advocates, judges, law enforcement officials and the public viewed the documentary together, Hill says. Then, in a day-long workshop, they isolated the issues facing their community.

“That’s really where this problem is going to be solved,” she says, “when it’s not just an advocate’s issue or a cop’s issue.”

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