You could say that 2015 was the year Australia realised its response to domestic violence was fundamentally inadequate. Not that anybody needed to tell those working on the frontline, but there’s been a broader media focus on violence that has caused many deaths of (mostly) women over the last year.
In September, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull labelled domestic violence a “national disgrace” as he pledged an extra $100 million to fight the problem. The LNP’s plan has since faced some criticism — some believe the money could be better spent on strengthening the existing victim support systems. But the characterisation as a “national disgrace” is echoed in the opening moments of the ABC’s new documentary Hitting Home.
Written and presented by Sarah Ferguson, the two-part documentary is a broad exploration of the various and complex facets of domestic violence. In her opening voiceover, Ferguson says of domestic violence:
“In fact, it’s always been with us, hidden away like a dirty secret. It’s just that now we’re finally paying attention.”
The first episode of Hitting Home tells the stories of several domestic violence victims, following their escape from horrific circumstances. We hear the blood-curdling calls made to police in moments of crisis, see the women being examined by forensic doctors, moving to a shelter, living in fear that they will be tracked down by their partner, and seeking justice in court.
The episode is harrowing and, in quite a few moments, absolutely terrifying.
Ferguson and her producers tread a very difficult line in creating this documentary: how do they tell these stories without exploiting, further traumatising or putting the victims in situations where they could be in even more danger?
Ferguson herself moved into a refuge for a period of time to gain the trust of these victims and determine how to best tell their stories. And she wanted to gain a deeper understanding of these issues herself.
Our understanding of individual instances of domestic violence and how the system works to protects victims is rather poor. For instance, I had no idea that there was a victim protection system which gives victims mobile SOS devices and panic rooms inside their apartments.
Most of us probably can’t comprehend the reasons why a victim would stay with an abusive partner, and most of us can’t comprehend what would lead a person to terrorise and attack their partner.
The first episode seeks to explain this: Ferguson asks two victims why they didn’t leave their partners after violent attacks. They explain the manipulative forces they were placed under. The second episode (which wasn’t available for preview) focuses on the perpetrators.
The individual stories which Ferguson presents are enlightening. That’s not always the case in this style of TV documentary which goes for human drama and gripping anecdotes, rather than investigating the ways in which a particular system is failing (and this was a criticism of the ABC’s ‘Mental As’ week).
But, in the case of domestic violence, our collective comprehension of the surrounding issues is so poor that it’s necessary to start on a micro level if we’re to think seriously about how to tackle the problem as a community.
Of course, the most important thing is to ensure that support services are well-resourced and available to victims. (Right now, this is almost certainly the most serious threat to our ability to deal effectively with instances of domestic violence).
Hitting Home touches on the fact that most of the refuges available for victims are usually full. It tells the story of one woman who faces a lengthy wait with her newborn baby for a place at a shelter. There was a serious threat that her baby could be removed by child services if she did not find appropriate accommodation quickly.
The first episode could shed some more light on this reality, but it will undoubtedly trigger many of its viewers to think more deeply about domestic violence and the way they might respond if they happen to encounter it.