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Gloria Steinem to host fundraiser for new Private Violence documentary

Taking private violence public

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Private Violence: The Movement Against Battering in America
Fundraiser hosted by Gloria Steinem
Sunday, Feb. 28, 2:30–4:30 p.m.

While many of us have an understanding of the civil rights movement, we might not be aware of the movement against domestic violence. It's time for that to change, says Kit Gruelle, a local domestic violence activist, educator, volunteer and producer of the in-the-works documentary Private Violence: The Movement Against Battering in America.

On Sunday, Feb. 28, feminist icon Gloria Steinem will host a preview screening and fundraiser at Spice Street in Chapel Hill.

For Gruelle, reform begins with changing some basic assumptions. "The first thing a person asks me when a domestic violence story comes up is 'Why did she stay?' instead of 'Why does he beat her and get away with it?'"

This question, says Gruelle, demonstrates the misconceptions, stigmas and victim blaming that clouds the real dialogue surrounding domestic violence. "The onus is placed upon the woman to explain why she's battered, and what she 'did' to upset him, while she fights for her basic human rights. Across the board, domestic violence is still not taken seriously, and the battered woman has no recourse until she has been hit."

Ten years ago, Gruelle, who has spent 25 years as an advocate for domestic violence survivors, had the idea of creating a film series that would tell the stories she's witnessed as a community educator and advocate, a film that would reframe the discussion and challenge viewers to question ingrained societal assumptions of what domestic violence looks like.

"We have to normalize the issue," she said, "and by that I don't mean make it acceptable, but open up the dialogue so that if a man in a bar hears another guy talking about hitting his wife, the man doesn't keep his mouth shut, but says, 'That is not OK.'"

Gruelle's idea for a film became a reality when she partnered with award-winning Durham-based documentary filmmakers Cynthia Hill (Tobacco Money Feeds My Family and The Guestworker) and Rebecca Cerese (Change Comes Knocking: The Story of the North Carolina Fund) to create the feature-length documentary.

In three years of work, the women traveled to homes across the nation to film hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors, advocates, pioneering activists and vocal allies of the movement.

"Kit's passion is contagious," says Cerese. "She's managed to get Vice President Joe Biden involved in the film, and when she went to interview Gloria Steinem they hit it off, and Gloria has become one of our biggest supporters."

Gruelle's gift of communication has been key in gaining the trust of survivors, including Mildred Muhammad, the estranged wife of the Washington, D.C., sniper, John Muhammad, who was executed late last year. "The sniper case started as domestic violence case," says Gruelle. "He intended to kill his ex-wife, and Mildred told us that while he was terrorizing the nation for those three weeks, it was like the nation was experiencing the terror she had lived with every day."

"Even when a woman does the right thing—gets the restraining orders and follows police protocol—the responsibility to remain safe still remains on her shoulders," says Gruelle, who has a stack of restraining orders filed by 32 women in North Carolina who died at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. Gruelle says these ultimately powerless documents are a symbol of a broken system and how much work is left to do.

"No one realizes how strong, smart and incredibly competent these domestic violence survivors are," said Gruelle, "and instead of asking 'Why does she stay?', people should change the dialog and ask 'Why he is allowed to continue battering her?'"

Gruelle, Cerese and Hill hope the film will get people to step back and really think about how serious domestic violence is in America, and even inspire public policy reform in each state.

Biden, too, expresses that optimism in the film. "If the Lord Almighty came down and said, 'Joe Biden, you can have one wish to deal with violence in America,' I would say eliminate violence against women. The simple reason is that it would transform society."

For information on Sunday's fundraiser, which runs from 2:30–4:30 p.m., call 824-0811 or e-mail privateviolence@gmail.com. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online at the film's Web site. Durham-based poet and musician Shirlette Ammons will perform with singer/ songwriter Greg Humphreys of Hobex. The event also features an auction of memorabilia signed by Steinem. Light hors d'oeuvres will be served with a cash bar available.

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