Documentary is frightfully real reality TV

PBS two-parter gives close look at domestic violence

TV Preview

March 18, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

This is reality television:

A woman in a short, pink housedress sits on her kitchen floor groaning and sobbing. Blood is everywhere; it covers the lenses of her thick glasses and splotches her pale, bruised legs.

The camera zooms in to show viewers the source of the blood - a jagged cut that starts in front of her right ear and ends at the corner of her mouth. The cut is so deep that her teeth are visible through the side of her face.

As paramedics struggle to lift the woman onto a stretcher, a neighbor matter-of-factly tells police who attacked the woman: her partner. And not for the first time.

"You all been here five or six times before. He used to hold her and choke her, and she had to just sit there until he got tired," says the neighbor. "When he gets drunk, he just lose his mind, and that's it."

This is the world of domestic violence according to acclaimed filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose two-part documentary Domestic Violence and Domestic Violence 2 , airs for 6 1/2 hours tonight and tomorrow night on public television. And what a dark and harrowing world it is.

For those not familiar with his work, Wiseman - not Ken Burns - is the nation's greatest living documentary filmmaker, responsible in large part for the golden age of documentaries that we are now enjoying.

In 30 films spanning 35 years, he has meticulously mapped the social territory where individual meets American institution. He adapted the techniques of cinema-verite to contemporary American storytelling in works from High School (1968) to Public Housing (1997).

Now his influence can be seen everywhere on television - from the in-your-face immediacy of a reality series like Fox's COPS to the sense of eavesdropping on life-and-death struggles found in such series as ABC's Hopkins 24/7 on life inside the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In fact, some viewers will surely be struck by how much the first 30 minutes or so of Domestic Violence looks like COPS, as Wiseman's camera follows police officers in Tampa, Fla., on three domestic violence calls. But it is COPS that borrowed from Wiseman, not the other way around.

More important, whereas a reality series like COPS milks violent confrontation and then moves on to another such encounter among police, criminals and victims, such scenes are only the starting point for Domestic Violence. Within the first 30 minutes, Wiseman leaves the police behind and brings his camera to a Tampa area shelter for victims of domestic violence - a simple, cinderblock haven called the Spring.

The most powerful and moving moments of the film are found at the Spring as Wiseman takes viewers inside the tiny offices where counselors do their intake interviews and listen as victims recount their histories of abuse. The stories of the lives intersect to describe a complex and desperate cycle of physical and sexual abuse often starting in childhood for both victim and abuser. Some of the stories of what is endured day to day are almost too awful to hear. They are told by pre-adolescent girls as well as women 18 to 80 years old and from a variety of ethnic, racial and social class backgrounds.

Before the film ends, it takes viewers into the criminal justice system where the courts try to make sense of and provide closure to narratives of domestic abuse that begin with 911 calls. But easy answers and feelings of closure are not what Wiseman is about.

He is after something much larger, something reality TV almost never delivers: Truth, no matter how messy or disturbing it might be.

`North Korea'

Welcome to North Korea, a Cinemax documentary by Dutch filmmakers Peter Tetteroo and Raymond Feddema, is not to be trusted. But it does make for fascinating viewing.

The problem is that the filmmakers are kept on an incredibly tight leash by the Communist handlers and appear to be fed nothing but propaganda. While the filmmakers understand this and repeatedly remind viewers of it during the film, they still make grand claims and generalizations about life in North Korea without any evidence. It is simply impossible to know what is true and what is not.

On the other hand, it is intriguing to get a glimpse of the myths and monuments the late Kim Il Sung built to himself in emulation of Josef Stalin and the ways in which Kim Jong Il, North Korea's current ruler, carries on his father's frightening totalitarian ways.

Welcome to North Korea airs at 7:30 tonight on the Cinemax cable channel.

PBS special

What: Domestic Violence and Domestic Violence 2

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26)

When: Tonight and tomorrow at 9 p.m.

In brief: A great filmmaker tells the ugly truth about the horror of domestic abuse.

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