After much deliberation, I’ve finally decided to write my MA dissertation on the representation of domestic violence in cinema. Plenty of topics were in the fore-running for the lengthy project, but I’ve decided to choose this one for a crucial reason. A seemingly endless archive of books, journals and articles are published about cinema’s portrayal of masculinity and violence every year, with no shortage of information accessible. Yet, discussions regarding women’s experiences in abusive relationships and their portrayal on screen remains scarce, with few articles published over the decades. I realised when attempting to gain information on this topic, there wasn’t a great deal to be obtained, despite the importance of the issue at hand. My dissertation will thus aim to directly confront how domestic violence is depicted in film by exploring a diverse range of cinematic releases. Although I haven’t specifically decided the topics to be discussed nor the exact films I’ll be using, I thought it would be useful to document the development of my project via this blog.
For the first film I will be briefly discussing, I thought it was appropriate to state there are trigger warnings for descriptions of violence against women.
The first film I’ve chosen is Tommy Davis’ One Minute to Nine (2007), later edited and re-released on HBO as Every Fucking Day of My Life (2009). The documentary focuses on the four days leading up to Wendy Maldonado’s 10-year imprisonment, along with her eldest son Randy’s seven-year sentence, for the joint-murder of husband and father Aaron Maldonado. With both herself and her children suffering extensive, life-threatening abuse from Aaron for over 19 years in their hometown of Oregon, Wendy made a decision on the night of yet another domestic dispute to murder her abuser in his sleep. Providing the only escape route she viewed possible to protect her family, Wendy killed Aaron in 2005 with the help of her eldest son, and immediately handed herself over to authorities.
The opening montage features a selection of distorted family footage from a vacation, with unsettling close-ups and slow motion shots of Wendy, Aaron and Randy’s faces accompanied by an unnerving musical piece. These aren’t happy memories of a family holiday abroad – the tone, facial expressions and underlying feeling that evades the footage is one of an acutely uncomfortable and distressing situation. In one particular scene, Aaron repeatedly calls to Wendy whom delivers a faint, empty smile for the camera before resuming her position of blankly staring out of the camper-van window; her emotions are palpable. In an interview with Latoya Peterson, Davis discusses how he discovered Aaron would repeatedly demand to ‘to re-shoot [scenes] so everyone looks happy’. By demanding family members to smile, in order to create a false sense of happiness, we witness how Aaron manipulated his family to disguise the abuse he repeatedly committed for nearly two decades. As the camera cuts to black, the title card ‘seven years later’ appears on screen and Wendy’s confession to the police on the night of the murder is audible. After admitting to her actions, Wendy is asked by a female police operator if Aaron has attempted to harm her or her four sons, and she responds ‘every fucking day of my life’, before the conversation abruptly ends.
What follows is an exploration of Wendy’s final days of freedom before a lengthy and arguably highly unfair prison sentence, depicting both her courage and her family’s interminable sadness endured at the hand’s of Aaron. Davis’ cinematic journey strives to reveal both the physical and emotional effects of domestic abuse, whilst refraining from sensationalising or dramatising Wendy’s story. There are no reenactments or reconstructions; it is with Wendy’s recollections and intercepted footage of home-videos, that her story is told. Wendy’s bravery is presented through her ability to candidly discuss the events experienced throughout her marriage with sincerity and level-headedness, despite the looming prison sentence threatening to devastate her family. Occasionally, Wendy even provides a humorous undertone to her anecdotes, appearing to seem almost at peace with her violent past and current situation. She provides the camera with detailed examples of abuse and violence, validated through physical trauma both to her own body and her family home. The punched hole marks in the walls of the family’s old home from Aaron violently striking Wendy were decorated with her son’s paintings, whilst the majority of lost teeth in her mouth are hidden behind a row of removable dentures. Both are devastating revelations of Wendy’s deep-rooted commitment to protecting all four of her children from further harm. Pandering to Aaron, by pretending the abuse did not exist, was her only way of survival.
Important questions are presented by Davis regarding the American judicial system, forcing audience’s to question laws on domestic abuse. How can a women who has been put through such insufferable abuse be torn from her family for 10 years, when they are in crucial need of rehabilitation and healing? How can Wendy’s murder of Aaron not be considered an act of self-defense, despite having to relentlessly protect both herself and her children every day of her life? How is it fair her eldest son, Randy, be submitted to seven-years in prison for protecting his younger siblings? A particularly distressing sequence shows Wendy guiding Davis’ camera men to a dense woodland area, walking through unidentifiable shrubbery to find ‘the spot’. Wendy locates an area of significance: it is here she was repeatedly taken and threatened with the notion of death by Aaron throughout their marriage. If she did not continue to submit to her husband and behave according to his orders, she would be murdered.
Here, the justifiable nature of Wendy’s homicide lingers in the forefront of my mind, as I become unable to explain with any form of reasoning why Wendy is doing time for another man’s despicable, horrific crimes.
Wendy was released from prison in March 2016, after serving the full ten-year term.