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Interview with Private Violence Director Cynthia Hill

Private Violence

Filmmaker: Why this movie?  Why did you decide to do it?

Hill: This is probably not a film I would have initiated on my own. It’s a subject matter that touches me personally, but one I’ve left behind. But six years ago, Kit Gruelle, an advocate for battered women, asked me to work on a project about the history of the battered women’s movement. It was intended to honor the women – and male allies – who have dedicated their lives to ending violence against women. So I started following Kit to work in shelters, court rooms, training sessions, wherever she would let me go.

There were horrible stories, unbelievable acts of violence, and a legal system that seems to be anything but helpful at times. But I also witnessed something that took me by surprise – unconditional support, love, and acceptance, one person to another person. These women who were so alone and desperate, sometimes they just simply need someone to believe them and to believe in them; to see Kit and other advocates provide that to them with that kind of support was something I had never encountered. Kit’s total acceptance, her supportive, nonjudgmental approach, is unique and special.

The more I learned, the more I realized that most of us get this issue so wrong. We look at the woman and immediately hold her responsible. We ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave? She’s got to be at least partially responsible, because how could she put herself in that situation? How could she put her children in that situation?” Being immersed in this world with Kit helped me realized that we are all asking the wrong questions. These situations are incredibly complicated. It’s about love, some of the time, it’s about control, all of the time, and when it gets to the point where he is physically beating her, what he’s done to diminish her and belittle her has stripped her of every piece of who she is. What these women need more than anything is somebody to help build them back up and it is the advocates on the ground that do that. After seeing this, I realized that was the story I wanted to tell.

What I really wanted to do was make a film about Kit and the victims-turned-survivors that we had met. I feel like people have seen victims’ stories. You see them quite frequently. But the way that they are told doesn’t allow you to relate to them. It’s so easy to say, “That problem is over there. That’s never going to happen to me. Oh poor them. Pity them. Oh, what a monster.” All of these different feelings help us distance ourselves from the issue and these people and make us think we can’t do anything about it. I didn’t want that to happen with this film. I wanted people to watch it and ultimately relate, to think, “That could be me,” or “That could be someone I know,” or maybe that it has been me, or something I’ve experienced makes me feel that way. And if we get to that place of empathy, we can see where we have a responsibility as a society to make a difference.

This is a crime that is so pervasive. But it’s something that is treated and viewed as private, shrouded in secrecy and shame. Part of that is because our society is so steeped in this notion that what happens in the home is no one else’s business. But when what’s happening in that home is this type of controlling violence – I’m not just referring to physical violence, but also psychological violence, the verbal abuse and controlling behavior – it affects the rest of us. Kit trains hostage negotiators because 75% of hostage situations begin as domestic violence. And we should all be outraged. We should want laws to reflect the seriousness of the crime, to provide appropriate relief for people who are experiencing violence. Unconditionally. We should not re-victimize people by reducing the whole solution to the question of whether or not the woman leaves. We need to see these women as the experts in their own lives. We should listen to them and not expect them to act in a way that is not grounded in the material realities of their lives. There is a lot to do.

Filmmaker: How much of your crew was female?  Was hiring women a consideration for you?

Hill: The crew on the ground, the actual production crew, is a two-person crew. Always. I’m directing and doing audio and Rex Miller, who is also my partner, is behind the camera. I like keeping it small and I think that is particularly vital when making a film of this kind that requires entering charged spaces. But there are a lot of women at the helm. All the women I work with are can-do people. I never hear a complaint, regardless of what I ask of them. I never hear, “That’s not possible.” It’s always, “OK, let’s do it.” I really like that. I get that “Yeah, we can tackle anything” response from women much more often.

We work from my house, which is sort of a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess because two of the associate producers I work with, Malinda Lowery and Un Kyong Ho, are both mothers too. So we’re all there with this motley crew of kids running around while we do our thing. And this type of arrangement is a very conscious decision on our part. We have not treated motherhood like a hindrance or a deterrent, or something that needs to be kept separate from our work lives. Family and work don’t preclude one another. We want to have very full lives and I think we all do. We see it as an added bonus that we get to do what we want to do, to make films and TV shows and enjoy each other’s company, while also having robust family lives. This works because we have made it a priority, put in the effort, and organized our work lives to make this possible. There are challenges and sacrifices to this type of arrangement, we all work other jobs as well. We’re not trying to “have it all,” we’re just lucky to be able to integrate work and family. I recognize that it is an immense privilege but I wish it wasn’t. I wish many more women had the resources and opportunity to do it.

Our executive producers are also all women. Cindy Waitt, who was the executive producer on the documentary film Bully, gave her support to Private Violence very early on. She believes deeply in this project and her family, the Waitts, have a foundation whose sole purpose is to end violence against women. So Cindy has been our most vocal champion and she was pivotal in bringing Gloria Steinem into the fold, first as a supporter and then also an executive producer. Gloria’s involvement elevates our film to another level and brings a lot of legitimacy to our efforts. It’s hard to put into words how much I enjoy working with these women in particular and women in general.

Filmmaker: How did you go about raising funding for it? (I ask this because most female filmmakers says that being female makes it harder to raise funds, so thought your story could be inspiring — I know this topic can be touchy feely, so answer it in the way that you are most comfortable with.)

Hill: By writing a hell of a lot of proposals and finding good people to come on board early on. I can’t overstate how difficult this can be. We were lucky to align ourselves with Cindy Waitt and to have the Waitt Institute sign on early with a solid commitment. But even if you write a great proposal, have a quality trailer, and are privileged enough to have amazing people like Gloria Steinem attached to the project, funders still want to see the whole film before they back it. There’s definitely a chicken and egg problem – does the film come first or the funding? – when it comes to financing independent documentaries. And by the way, we did get money from Chicken and Egg Pictures (laughter). I wish more places like Chicken and Egg existed. It’s this fantastic organization that supports and nurtures women filmmakers, not only with money, but also with mentorship and other support. They have these believe-in-you grants for production support which are so key and so few and far between.

It’s a lot easier to raise money now that the film is almost finished! There’s increasingly more money available for outreach, and everyone wants to know what kind of engagement campaign you’re planning, which is hard to know until you’re nearing completion. Fundraising has never been easy or fun and I’m not sure it gets any easier the more established you are. The whole process is very slow. It would be nice if we had more foundations that support film regionally, because that is certainly something we are missing in NC and in the South in general. You have to do a lot more convincing to get foundations to give you money if you are based here. The assumption is we don’t know what we’re doing because we’re not in New York, or that we don’t make films that are important to the country as a whole.

Moving back to North Carolina after being in NYC and recognizing how little support there was for films and filmmakers in this region, I was compelled to start the Southern Documentary Fund. I wanted to bring more attention to Southern filmmakers and to make it possible for folks to stay here and to tell these stories. It has been an uphill battle and we’ve made some progress, but I’m hoping to make much more. There are a lot of talented people in this region. If we can just get the foundations and folks with wealth to recognize that talent and see the impact these films can have, we could do more amazing things. And it certainly would make it easier for these filmmakers to do their work.

Filmmaker: Do you think a male director might have handled the making of this film differently?  How did being a female filmmaker effect how this film got made do you think?

Hill: Could a man make this film? Sure. And I think the right man could have done a really good job with it. For me, it’s more about the individual and not necessarily about gender. It comes down to whether or not someone is bold enough to see the right story and tell it, but also to shut up and really listen. I think for the women that were there when we were filming, it was a comfort that I am a woman and perhaps that fact allowed them to be more honest. But the camera person who was with me is male – a sensitive male, but a male nonetheless. He’s my partner and we work together a lot. We were able to just be there and listen. Being there with Kit gave us that permission. The access Kit provided was certainly critical.

Filmmaker: In what ways do you think being a female filmmaker/actress has helped or impeded your trajectory in the film industry?

Hill: I don’t think it’s done either. I think that making films is just hard, whether you are a man or a woman. Either way, you have to be passionate enough, determined enough, crazy enough, naïve enough to make it happen. I know this was not the case historically when everything was much more difficult for women. I am so grateful for women like Gloria Steinem who fought that struggle and left that legacy for my generation. What I find to be the biggest impediment as a filmmaker is my geographic location. Being in North Carolina and from the South, I think I get pigeonholed as someone who makes “local programming” that doesn’t really matter to the country as a whole. People imagine the South as this homogenous, isolated, conservative place, but it’s really none of those things. So I’m beginning to wear that “local” as a badge of honor because all of my films are local and I see great value in that. My films are all based on something I can see from my own backyard, issues and subjects that are near and dear to me and I can’t see myself making films about things that are way off somewhere else when there is so much to film here. You can make relevant films, tell compelling stories from a location like North Carolina and have them matter in a national context.

Filmmaker: Of the big blockbuster movies out there, which do you wish you had directed?

Hill: I don’t go see blockbuster film. I rarely get to see any films in theaters. The one movie I saw in an actual theater in the last six months was Free Turkey with my 5 year old and my 2 year old. And I don’t necessarily wish that one was mine (laughter). When I do see movies, it’s usually on-demand or cable, and rarely uninterrupted. Films that I have responded to lately both have the word “valentine” in the titles. I thought the documentary Valentine Road was just amazing. I thought that the director, Marta Cunningham, did an incredible job of just being there and allowing people to speak for themselves, giving the audience a true sense of what this community is like and what they are struggling with from both sides. She was not judging them and I really respect that. Blue Valentine is just beautiful, and beautifully disturbing, and speaks to all kinds of aspects of relationships. They are both extraordinary films.

In terms of other films that I have thought about or directors that inspire me, Terrence Malick is someone I admire a lot. I could watch all of his films over and over again, particularly his earlier ones. They are just moving. I didn’t go to film school. Actually, I went to pharmacy school, so I didn’t come to this work with a background in filmmaking. The only thing I really know is what I like. One of my favorite documentary filmmakers is Alan Berliner. He’s brilliant. I’m not sure anybody can make films like he makes, but he’s one of the first filmmakers who I intentionally sought out for the express purpose of studying his work. Now we’re friends, which I feel very fortunate about, but just his use of visuals and sound, and the way he brings those two together inspires me. He pays great attention to storytelling and the narrative, which is something that I seek out to do in my own work, to craft documentaries that tell stories, that have true narratives and take you on a journey.

Filmmaker: What’s next?

Hill: This was a long project so it’s nice just to be able to spend a little time enjoying the screening of this film. Also, it will broadcast on HBO, which is thrilling. That should happen later in 2014. But I’m actually in the midst of the “next” right now. Another project that I’ve been working on is a documentary TV series called A Chef’s Life that is currently airing on PBS. It centers around another very strong woman, this time a chef, Vivian Howard. Vivian and I grew up together in rural eastern North Carolina, and we created A Chef’s Life to focus on food traditions in our hometowns and her farm-to-table restaurant in Kinston, NC. A lot of it is about her relationship to the local purveyors of the ingredients she uses, so again, the viewer glimpses a world that not many people are privy to, or even think about. I find it so wonderful that I have the ability to work on projects that I enjoy and get to tell the stories that I want to tell. I want to continue doing that for as long as I can.

Filmmaker: Considering this will be released at Sundance: A) What do you hope to gain from being at the festival?  and B) Who would be your dream person to meet while there?

Hill: (laughter) I’ve never been to Sundance before, so the experience itself is going to be pretty amazing. I just want to have fun, meet other filmmakers, meet some industry people. I hope that it translates into future projects that are a bit easier to get off the ground and complete. I would love for that to happen. Of course we all want to meet Robert Redford. If he’s there, I’m definitely getting my picture made with him! I don’t know. I don’t know whose going to be there, but I do know that I’d like to see some good films. Uninterrupted.

Filmmaker:  What is a question I should have asked but didn’t that you think is relevant to this film?

Hill: What has it been like working with Gloria Steinem?

Working with Gloria has been an immense honor. She and Kit have developed a fairly close relationship and it’s been great for me to tag along and witness that. It’s wonderful simply being in her presence. I am always reminded of what women have accomplished over the years, which I am just in awe of.  And she is so real. That’s what has surprised me the most. She does have a particular vision for the world, one that centers around women’s liberation and equality, but she is incredibly open-minded and is able to see other points of view, which I don’t think people give her credit for, because they think, “She’s the feminist, she thinks her way is the only way.” But whenever we have conversations around these larger issues, it’s amazing that she is often the one playing devil’s advocate, challenging us to see the issue from the other perspective. I’m always surprised and impressed by that. She’s definitely not the person I thought she was going to be. She’s way more.

Filmmaker: You’ve been working on this film for a long time, close to a decade. How does it feel to finally see your work realized and out in the world?

Hill: I feel like it’s an appropriate time for this film to be coming out because 2014 is the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women’s Act. It’s important for our leaders in Washington to understand what this law has done and what it hasn’t done to keep women and children safe. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done. Unfortunately it seems as though statistics have flat-lined and there hasn’t been a vast improvement in terms of the safety of women and children in their own homes. Women and children are still dying, still being abused and that is unacceptable. I hope that this film and this anniversary becomes a catalyst for greater change.

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