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hitting home: sarah ferguson’s domestic violence documentary

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Every day in Australia, police face 657 cases of violence against women. Every week, 2 women are murdered, often by somebody they know. While watching Hitting Home, Sarah Ferguson’s new documentary on Australian domestic violence, my friend wonders aloud, ‘Has it always been this bad?’ I answer: ‘Yes.’ It’s just that this year, we’re paying attention.

Hitting Home investigates the stories of victims, perpetrators, and people working to combat domestic violence (DV). DV ‘refers to interpersonal violence which takes place in domestic settings, family relationships, and intimate relationships.’ The first episode of Hitting Home asks the question: ‘Why do victims stay?’ The second episode shifts focus onto perpetrators, asking: ‘Why do men commit DV?’

Fergus’ answers are presented as a series of hard­hitting stories, that provide an insider’s view of police, court, shelter, and rehabilitation programs. Shame and control are consistent themes. Together, these stories reveal the dark reality that DV is an epidemic in Australia, demanding political action.

Hitting Home marks an important shift in the media’s treatment of DV. It is the first national documentary that represents DV as a social problem and that has received significant public attention. This should be surprising, considering that DV has existed throughout Australian history.

For decades, researchers and advocates have fought for DV to be recognised as a socio­cultural, systemic problem. Australia’s first DV shelter opened in 1974. It’s founder, feminist Anne Summers, remembers ‘understand[ing] that violence against women and children [was] a huge problem.’

Despite advocates’ efforts, DV services and prevention programs have been critically underfunded. News coverage of DV has also been misrepresentative and limited. A recent report found that Australian media often ignores DV assault stories, and disproportionately covers violence committed by females and strangers. When DV is covered, it is typically treated as an isolated incident caused by the perpetrator’s disturbed psychology. Pathologising the issue in this way obfuscates broader structural and socio­cultural causes, and perpetuates popular myths about DV.

Hitting Home is part of a recent, decisive shift towards recognising and acting on DV in Australia. In September, then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick declared that DV was Australia’s greatest human rights violation. Later that month, Malcolm Turnbull called for ‘cultural change’. He acknowledged that ‘violence against women begins with disrespecting women’ and announced a $100 million package for DV prevention and security services.

PHD student Annie Blatchford recognises the role of Australian media in motivating this political action. She argues that media coverage of Jill Meagher’s murder was the catalyst. As a young, attractive woman who worked in media, Meagher’s death was relatable to journalists and shocking to the public.

The subsequent Victorian campaigns led by Ken Lay, the murder of Rosie Batty’s son, and a four day period during which three women were murdered meant that DV gained traction in the headlines. Public attention culminated last week, with the release of Hitting Home, parliamentary speeches on DV, and thousands marching for White Ribbon Day.

Hitting Home therefore marks an important change in the way Australian media attends to DV. The two-part documentary is ‘unflinching’ and unapologetic about positioning DV as a national problem, characterised by men committing violence against women, and one that is never provoked by the victim.

In the first instance, Ferguson diverges from popular media in that she treats DV as a nationwide crisis. DV is labelled an ‘epidemic’ throughout the documentary, and the overwhelming workload of service providers is made clear. In the first episode, for example, police officers arrive at work in the early morning to face piles of DV cases. DV’s epidemic status is evidenced further by Ferguson’s use of statistics. These aspects of the documentary work to undermine the idea that DV is rare.

Hitting Home could have done more to make clear that this problem is not simply motivated by men’s individual personalities, however. Ferguson aims to reiterate DVs gendered causes, asking a perpetrator ­ ‘Do you think you need to change the way you relate to women?’ ­ for example, but this is partly lost in stories of disturbed and aggressive perpetrators. Discussing with researchers about the link between control and gender constructs or sexism would have improved this.

Ferguson clearly rebukes victim blaming. Victims’ stories explain the sense of shame, fear and low confidence that prevent them from leaving; one woman recounts, ‘I was embarrassed… [I felt] that I’ve got to do something better to make him happier’. Ferguson explicitly addresses the question of whether or not victims provoke violence by asking the Inspector for the NSW Police Domestic and Family Violence team. He answers, ‘provoked to commit an assault… to terrorise someone…? Provocation? Rubbish.’

The ultimate strength of Hitting Home, however, is its use of story. It delivers images and interviews that cut through confusion and provoke compassion. For those who have studied Australian domestic violence, the documentary shows how abuse and intervention occur in real life. Watching the cross-examination of a victim in court deepened my understanding of low conviction rates and victims’ reluctance to press charges. ‘I put to you that you caused yourself those injuries,’ states the defendant lawyer.

Hitting Home is confronting. But it is a confronting topic, by nature. Hitting Home includes images of assault injuries, detailed assault recounts, and police interviews with victims and perpetrators. Although confronting, I compel readers who feel able to to watch this documentary. The fact that it is hard for us to watch speaks to DV’s impact, and the need for action.

Hitting Home marks an important shift in the way media and politicians represent domestic violence. It will contribute to a new awareness of the nature and extent of domestic violence in Australia. By emphasising the role of shame, fear and abuse in preventing victims’ escape, and that of control in motivating men to commit violence, it rebukes damaging myths and enhances understanding. Looking ahead, the question is whether or not this focus on DV will continue until adequate funding, research and prevention programs are provided. Hitting Home can only benefit this end.

 

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