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Meet the Filmmaker Documenting Every British Woman who Died of Domestic Violence in a Year

Vanessa Engle's new documentary "Love You to Death" explores the lives of the 86 women killed by their male partners in Britain in 2013.

Olivia Marks

Olivia Marks

Vanessa Engle against the cutting wall in her documentary

"She was my auntie. She was my best friend. She was my daughter. She was my mum."

So begins Vanessa Engle's latest documentary, Love You to Death: A Year of Domestic Violence, a film which seeks to tell the stories of each of the 86 UK women who were killed at the hands of their male partners in 2013. To give a name to every woman who died as a result of domestic violence in a single year.

While it's not possible to fully explore every case, Engle looks in great detail at the lives of several women who were murdered that year. Through testimonies of friends, sisters, mothers, fathers, and young daughters, Engle paints a harrowing picture of the lives of these women, and of the lives left in the aftermath of their murders.

Central to the documentary is a giant board, to which the camera comes back again and again and onto which is pinned the faces and newspaper cuttings of each woman. It remind us repeatedly who these women were, and it makes for sobering viewing.

With over 30 years experience as a documentarian, it's very possible you will already be familiar with Engle's work. Perhaps best known for her projects Lefties, Jews, Women, and Money,this is the first time she has dealt with with such sensitive and traumatic material.

And as new figures are revealed this week that police forces are "nearly overwhelmed" by a "staggering" increase in cases of reported domestic abuse, Engle's documentary couldn't be more pertinent. I spoke to her to find out more about the film.

VICE: What drew you to making a film about domestic violence?
Vanessa Engle: It's been in my mind for a long time. I've been making films for nearly 30 years and I've made a lot of films about the disparity between men and women, so in a way I've kind of revolved around this subject matter a lot. I've always known the statistic that two women a week are killed as a result of domestic violence, but it just suddenly dawned on me that I could do a year of deaths. Domestic violence is such a difficult and frankly off-putting subject for people—even those affected by it—but doing a year of deaths is a proposition which really sparks people's imaginations. There's something so powerful about 86 women in one year. It's such a lot of women, but it's not so many that it's beyond your imagination.

All the women in the documentary are so different—they're of all ages, from every background, every ethnicity. If there's one thing that unifies them it's that domestic violence doesn't discriminate. Did that surprise you?
We all have preconceptions about domestic violence. For example, we might think that those affected are in violent relationships. We might think alcohol and mental health problems are causing domestic violence. And those preconceptions are not wrong, but when you look at the 86 deaths in the film there are just so many other situations and reasons why these men are killing women. I immersed myself in the cases and read all the cuttings—it was a really disturbing experience. There were a lot of old people killed by their long-term spouses. It's so shocking. I wanted the film to somehow reflect the experience I'd had reading all those cuttings and how different they were.

The deaths were all so violent, which was something I found extremely shocking, especially when set against the facelessness and ordinariness of the towns you depict.
I was really, really blown away by the violence. In a way, it's possible to imagine that you might lose your temper and push someone and they fall over and bump their head. Or it's possible to imagine that when you're really, really drunk you could lash out and hurt someone. But there's one case where an 18-year-old has beheaded his girlfriend. Another man cut his wife's heart out—every time I saw the camera pan past that on the wall of cuttings in the film it made my blood curdle. Lee Birch [who features in the film] strangled his wife Anne Marie in a field and then he beat her really savagely with a branch. There was a man who poured petrol on his wife and set her on fire in front of her small children. But every street and every address looks so ordinary—it's every house we walk past every day. The banality of those landscapes really struck me, and that was something I was really trying to communicate.

What from the film has stayed with you the most?
I've seen it so many times, but each time I watch it something else strikes me. The never-ending consequences and ripples for the families of the dead women is something that has really stayed with me. They all have such trauma and each time I have contact with them, which I do regularly, it'll be a birthday, or the anniversary of the death, or for the perpetrators conviction. For all of them it's Christmas coming up, or it's their own birthday, or it's Mother's Day and they haven't got a mother. I've never really made a film about trauma before and again you think you know what trauma is, but you don't until you're up close to it like that. I think that the people who took part were really brave to go public on a subject that's so intimate and personal and private. It's not just a film about this hugely important issue of domestic violence, it's also a film about the impact on the people left behind. It never goes away, and I don't think it ever really gets any better for them. I'm amazed by them all and their bravery.

And how do you as a director deal with that trauma and sensitivity of the subject matter. How are you able to gain the trust of your interviewees?
I am a great believer in being very direct with people and of giving them credit to absolutely take their own decisions. I never really persuade people to take part in a program, that's not my job. What I do is explain to them clearly and honestly what it is I'm trying to do. In this film particularly, the proposition was quite clear and it was very clear our goal was to raise awareness of the issue. The people taking part go away privately and make their decision, so by the time we turn up with a camera crew, they are primed and they know they're going to do it. And then I ask my questions as humanely and directly as I can. The contract between me and the interviewees is quite straightforward—they know what they've signed up for and I know what I'm there to do.

You imagine domestic violence to be something that happens behind closed doors, but there are moments in the film where the abuse is both literally and metaphorically out in the world.
People experience terrible feelings of guilt in the aftermath because they think 'Should I have done more? Should I have done something?' But they also feel quite angry about the fact that they didn't know, or that they did say, "For God's sake get out" and weren't heard. At what point do people feel able or have the right to intervene? As well as the huge anguish at the loss of a person you love, there's also guilt and anger. And I think that raises a question for all of us—it's not just when do you intervene, but how. I've known women in bad situations like this and you can say get out, but if they've got kids, if they've got no money, if they've got nowhere to go then it's not easy for them to always just leave.

Anne-Marie Birch with her daughter

There's no getting away from the fact that domestic violence is a gendered issue. Did you think about how men are portrayed in the documentary?
When I told people in the course of making the documentary what I was doing they said, "Oh women are violent to men too, and in the lesbian and gay community there is violence, and in the trans community there's a huge amount of violence. What about these people?" And those people are very important too, and those issues are important, it's just that this film is not about them. In 2013, 154 women were murdered, 86 of them were murdered by their male partners. That's 52 percent. In the same year, 381 men were murdered (there's always more men murdered because men tend to find themselves in more violent situations more often) of whom 12 were murdered by women. That's 3 percent. There's your gender asymmetry. And of those 3 percent of men, what you tend to find if you dig into those cases, is that in a lot of them the women were abused by men and they had finally retaliated or snapped. So even in those 12 cases, women might have been being abused.

In your opinion, what do you think is behind the problem of male violence against women?
There are as many reasons as there are deaths—they're all very different, and I don't have a key to all of them. But what comes out of the film is that there seems to be an issue where men feel they want to be able to control women, or feel they have the right to control or possess them. I suppose it's not rocket science to conclude from that that this is a reflection of a bigger, profound social issue of how men are taught to view women. It's very interesting that some of the men in the film are mentally ill, some have dementia, but even then they still kill their wives. That's how deep it goes in the male psyche—even when you don't know what's going on, you still have an impulse to kill your wife. Some of the men are brutal and have a history of violence, but by and large these are not violent men. These were men who had never been violent before, and this was their first case of violence.

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