July 24, 2018 \ Geoff Birmingham
Case Study: Filming Victims of Domestic Violence

Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) provides legal counsel to low-income Boston residents. The Family Law Unit within GBLS works with victims of domestic violence, and GBLS wanted a video that told the story of one of these clients for a recent fundraising campaign.

The need for sensitivity

GBLS identified a former client, Sam, who was willing to share her story. Beyond removing herself from danger, a big motivation for Sam leaving her abuser was to protect her two baby girls. For this reason, we knew her story would include mention of her children, but, understandably, she was very hesitant that her two girls (now kindergarteners) be a part of the video production. From her perspective, the girls should have ownership of their story until they are old enough to decide for themselves, and so she wanted to keep them anonymous.

After some discussion, we agreed with Sam and GBLS that if we did any filming with the girls, it would be at a distance to keep their identities protected.

Giving Sam’s story its full due

Sam had presented her story publicly at events before her filming with us, so she wasn’t reluctant to share. Having seen (in text form) what she presented before, though, it was quite clear that mimicking what she’d done before wouldn’t work for video – it would be much too long.

Typically, we would have plenty of b-roll footage at our disposal, which would allow us to edit the material down into a video-friendly form and then cover up all the edits with the b-roll footage. In this case, though, we knew from the beginning that we wouldn’t have much family footage for the reasons already mentioned, as well as the fact that, beyond Sam’s interview, we wouldn’t have much time at our disposal.

So before Sam sat down in front of the camera, we talked a little bit about possible ways she might take the story she had told before and shorten it for video purposes. The biggest problem with this, though, was that if she got too preoccupied with editing herself while on camera, she might not be focused on what really mattered – sharing her experience in an authentic, compelling way.

We came to the conclusion that Sam should tell her story uninhibited, and then we’d figure out how to edit it after the fact. This solution – “we’ll fix it in post” – is one that we’ve had to rely on before.

The result

Sam proved to be an excellent communicator. First and foremost, she was willing to share her vulnerabilities and her earlier struggles. Though she had told her story before, it didn’t feel canned or scripted when she spoke to us. Instead, it felt real.

Because of Sam’s presence on camera, the video actually didn’t need much b-roll footage except a little bit at a couple of key points. So instead of covering up the edit points in her interview with other video, we just allowed her to stay on camera, fade briefly to black when needed, and then fade back up again further on in her story.

A few years back, we worked with The Elizabeth Stone House (ESH), which serves a similar population. The women who spoke about the circumstances that they had escaped spoke authentically, and, just like Sam, that was all that was needed to keep the viewer engaged.

Key Production Takeaways

  • Respect the wishes of your subject
  • Less is often more (i.e. with Sam, keep the direction to a minimum and just let her speak)
  • Compelling stories can often stand alone if needed, without the extra visuals

Key Takeaways for Reflection Films

In the Elizabeth Stone House excerpt, Rita mentions that victims of abuse are often judged critically by others. Even so, she and the other women still agreed to share their stories on camera and publicly, which is a testament to their courage. It’s also a sign of how important the services of GBLS and ESH are – Sam said on more than one occasion that she would do anything for GBLS because she’s so grateful for the support they gave to her and to her daughters.