Frederick Wiseman is a maker of epic-length documentaries examining various institutions, and his method is one of quiet observation. If it’s a given that documentarians have agendas of varying visibility then Wiseman’s aims are toward the invisible end of the spectrum. His films are concerned with what happens when people become part of a predetermined process, the drama that occurs when free will is entered into a system and mutual manipulation occurs. Usually it’s a drama that simmers very slowly, and one may well wonder why he doesn’t edit out the boring parts, the repetitions, the long periods of stasis when neither the individual nor the system seem to be getting anywhere. But these longueurs are part of his point — he wants to show how the slow grind of entrenched procedures leads to getting things done, and how this slowness is both a strength and a weakness.
In this follow-up, or second half, of Domestic Violence the focus, after a short sequence involving an arrest, stays on the courts. The opening arrest demonstrates how, at least in the Florida county where this was filmed, the domestic violence laws have been designed to err on the side of caution, while the rest of the film shows why. In a long (of course) first section a judge presides over a cattle-call pre-trial hearing, and the litany of self-serving testimonies begin. Some are, some serious, some are he-said/she-said spitting contests where neither party seems guiltless, and some are too-transparent moves in an ongoing custody battle. One begins to see the harsh nature of the law as a response to the difficulty at getting at the truth.
As the film moves through the different stages of the court process, the judges’ jobs seem grueling, not so much because they have to listen to all these grim details, but because as true-life dramas go, domestic violence, as presented in court, seems to have so few scenarios. Again and again we hear of petty arguments, usually fueled by booze, getting out of hand and turning physical — and of mutual and long-running vengeful behavior. There’s a danger in DVII that Wiseman’s inclusive approach may trivialize the subject. Of the dozens of cases shown, only a handful appear to involve serious repeat abusers. But it’s up to the viewer to sort out the varying degrees of seriousness here, to discern the need for an attempt to nip certain kinds of behavior in the bud, and to decide whether or not that is, in fact, being effectively done.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Sept. 22, at 7:30 p.m.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].