While domestic violence has long been a central concern for feminists, the consequences for abused women who fight back in self-defense too frequently remain invisible.1 In taking up this issue, both From One Prison, directed by Carol Jacobsen, and Sin by Silence, by Olivia Klaus, intimately position the viewer to share the painful testimonials of women survivors imprisoned for killing their abusers. These powerful films demonstrate that mobilizing viewers' emotional investments can avoid sentimentality while generating political critiques about the gender inequalities endemic to the U.S. criminal justice system.
In From One Prison, contrasts between close-ups of women's faces and establishing shots of prisons and uniformed guards locking doors create a visual complement to prisoners' stories about enduring years of abuse and the acts of self-defense that led to their subsequent imprisonment. No voice-over narration or experts interpret these women's testimonials; instead Jacobsen uses extreme close-ups to locate the viewer in a shared space with the four women of different racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds featured in the film. In so doing, she interrupts a normative gaze at incarceration that too often distances the viewer from the subject. Instead, this visual strategy brings the viewer into intimate contact with the affective impacts of male partner violence and subsequent state violence on women prisoners' bodies and souls. The women describe their efforts to maintain their dignity, sanity, and self-respect against the aggressive cruelty and humiliating practices of prison guards, as well as the grinding struggles against bad food, poor medical care, and lack of physical and emotional intimacy. Speaking about the depravation of human contact in prison, for instance, one woman explains "it's part of your punishment [because] you've failed as a woman." Such vivid and painful insights make From One Prison a valuable asset for feminist classrooms addressing the role of violence in sustaining structural forms of gender inequality. Moreover, Jacobsen's focus on the horrific conditions in one Michigan state prison insistently calls attention to human rights violations that pervade the U.S. penal system.
In Sin by Silence, Klaus similarly relies on visual contrasts between incarceration and abuse survivors' experiences, along with other documentary techniques such as graphics, voice-over narration, and interviews with experts. For instance, while a woman narrates her story, the camera peers through a small window cut into the door of her cell and then cuts to a montage of newspaper headlines about the death of her husband and scenes of a courtroom trial. Sin by Silence positions these visual and oral testimonials within a wider narrative of self-empowerment through a focus on Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), a group founded by a California prison inmate, Brenda Clubine, as a support group for abuse survivors. Klaus intersperses selected life stories with scenes from a CWAA meeting in which a diverse group of women share their excruciating histories of abuse. Dressed in street clothes, they articulate insights about domestic violence familiar to feminists such as "it didn't just happen to me," and "her story was just like mine." Their normalcy emphasizes the similarities between these women and the viewer in ways that demystify popular characterizations of both abuse survivors and women inmates. A theme of empowerment runs throughout the film, both in personal testimonials such as when Clubine proudly states that "I did accomplish something" and in CWAA's recent successes in lobbying the California legislature for statutory reform. At the same time, the film insistently recognizes women prisoners' uphill battles for legal recognition. While From One Prison can be immensely useful in teaching about gender inequalities and state power, Klaus' poignant visualization of both individual and group activism makes Sin by Silence a compelling film for feminist classrooms addressing current efforts to challenge juridical institutions dealing with domestic violence.
Along with personalizing the failures of state policies about domestic violence and gender biases in the criminal justice system, these films thematize key theoretical concepts such as hegemony, resistance, and agency--current mainstays of feminist pedagogy. For instance, Sin by Silence disrupts conventional assumptions about victimization and empowerment to provide an alternative perspective for courses on feminist activism.2 Similarly, From One Prison features testimonials by prisoners that complicate common understandings of agency as individual acts of empowerment, as these articulate women claim their agency within a penal system that severely constrains acts of resistance. Notably, these two documentaries use visual strategies to make legible the ongoing structural and individual acts of gender violence that conspire to strip women of their freedoms, and equally important, they make visible the dignity and self-respect women maintain as they struggle to regain those freedoms.
) is professor of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. Recent publications include Just Advocacy: Women's Human Rights, Transnational Feminism and the Politics of Representation
(co-edited with W. Hesford) and articles in Meridians
, Peace Review
, and Reconstruction
. Her current book project is Visible Wars and the Ambivalences of Witnessing.
1 There is a small but growing scholarship on this topic; see for example, Elizabeth Dermody Leonard, Convicted Survivors: The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002); Susan L. Miller, Victims as Offenders: The Paradox of Women's Violence in Relationships (New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 2005); and Paula Wilcox, Surviving Domestic Violence: Gender, Poverty and Agency (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Other films that grapple with this subject include: Domestic Violence in America, Part 2, Battered women-- fighting back, CBS New Productions (Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2004); and Vita Lusty, 'Til Death Do Us Part (Venice, Calif.: Pathfinder Pictures, 2008)
2 See Carisa R. Showden, Choices Women Make: Agency in Domestic Violence, Assisted Reproduction, and Sex Work (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011) for a discussion of these concepts in relation to domestic violence. See also Amy Allen, The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).