Docu ‘Home Truth’ Exposes The Ugly Truth About Domestic Violence & The Complexity Of Trauma

Jessica Lenahan 2017 | photo by Megan Newton

If you are in New York City from June 9-18, put the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on your calendar because this is one event you don’t want to  miss out on. Among the many brilliant and moving films being shown over the course of 9 days, all of which cover topics that are human rights issues, is a feature length documentary called ‘Home Truth’.

The HRWFF will be the world premiere of this documentary, screening on June 11 and 12 specifically. The film follows the story of one woman, who in the wake of unspeakable tragedy and hardship, embarks upon a journey to reclaim her voice and discover her own power to heal herself and others.

In 1999, Colorado mother Jessica Gonzales (now Lenahan) experiences every parent’s worst nightmare when her three young daughters are killed after being abducted by their father in violation of a domestic violence restraining order. Devastated, Jessica files a lawsuit against the police, claiming they did not adequately enforce her restraining order despite her repeated calls for help that night.

Determined to make sure her daughters did not die in vain, Jessica pursues her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and an international human rights tribunal, seeking to strengthen legal rights for domestic violence victims. Meanwhile, her relationship with her one-surviving child, her son Jessie, suffers, as he struggles with the tragedy in his own way. Shot over the course of nine years, ‘Home Truth’ chronicles one family’s pursuit of justice, shedding light on how our society responds to domestic violence and how the trauma from domestic violence tragedies can linger throughout generations.

Jessica and her four children Jessie, Rebecca, Katheryn and Leslie | photo courtesy of Jessica Lenahan

Jessica is the first individual domestic violence survivor to bring a case against the United States before an international human rights tribunal. In 2011, in a landmark decision, the Commission found the United States responsible for human rights violations against Jessica and her three deceased children. Jessica has become a human rights and women’s rights advocate, speaking around the world on issues of violence against women, and receiving awards from the U.S. Human Rights Network, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), and Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Human Rights.

Filmmakers Katia Maguire (‘Kingdom of Shadows’, ‘Los Graduados’, and ‘Quest for Honor’) and April Hayes (‘Respond & Rebuild’ and ‘God is a Garden’), who both directed and produced this must-see film, spoke to us about the topic of domestic violence, how they tackled this in the documentary format, and why they believe this film is more timely than ever, especially considering our political and cultural climate in the United States.

Katia and April first came across Jessica’s story 9 years ago while they were at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, funnily enough, and met Jessica’s lawyer who shared her story. A few days later, the filmmakers saw Jessica speak at an ACLU event and they then knew they had to make a film about her. For those unfamiliar with the documentary process, a 9-year filming schedule seems like a long time, but the directors say this is not altogether extraordinary in this particular format.

Home Truth Directors/Producers Katia Maguire and April Hayes | Photo by Matt Peterson

“We always expected it would take longer than a regular news broadcast piece. The documentary process means immersing yourself in a story, which can often take a long period of time, as in the case with Jessica,” said Katia.

She also pointed out that it was over the course of filming and becoming familiar with Jessica’s surviving son (who many news reports didn’t necessarily feature or focus on) that they realized the heart of the story was this pivotal mother-son relationship.

There is hope that ‘Home Truth’ can shed light not just on the failings of the justice system and law enforcement, but on the complexities about the issue of domestic violence that are not being addressed in order to see laws that properly serve victims and survivors.

“We need to see more trauma-informed policing to help shape our laws. There needs to be more focus on how violence affects not just the individuals, but also the families and communities. Violence begets violence, and it often begins in the home,” said Katia.

As in the case of Jessica, the lack of understanding about violence and trauma meant her restraining order and pleas to law enforcement were not taken seriously. At the end of the film we see then-US Attorney General Loretta Lynch making a powerful statement that domestic violence will not be tolerated at the highest level which is a major statement to make. Little did the filmmakers know, almost overnight these sentiments would be placed under threat with the incoming Trump administration.

Jessica Lenahan in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, 2011 | Photo by Adequate Images, LLC

“The funding and support for programs that advocate for survivors were already not enough, and now they may be taken away even further with the new Trump budget. What Jessica’s US Supreme Court case exposed was that the effectiveness of a restraining order becomes weakened when police don’t take violence (especially toward women) seriously. The order then becomes an imperfect tool,” said April.

As you will see in the film, Jessica took her case before an international human rights tribunal, which brings us to an important point about the United States’ position on domestic violence, and especially violence toward women. We are one of only 7 countries which have not yet ratified the UN’s Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). When it comes to a case like Jessica Gonzales’ and many other victims, this matters.

“Given the blatant misogyny we saw coming from the presidential campaign last year [from Donald Trump], it put the issue of violence against women back on the national agenda,” said Katia.

“It matters that we haven’t ratified CEDAW because women like Jessica thought she was going to be protected, but wasn’t. We need to cultivate a culture of believing women when they report these incidents, and trust the survivors when they share their stories. Seeing more and more advocates speak out in favor of victims and survivors gives me hope that the culture can be changed,” she added.

As for Jessica herself, she believes this film and her story will help with this mission, and allow audiences to understand that domestic violence is not such a clear cut issue.

Jessica Lenahan speaks before the Inter-American Commission On Human Rights, 2014 | photo by Adequate Images, LLC

“She felt her story was portrayed too simplistically by most of the news media shows she was appearing on. When questions such as “why don’t women just leave?” are still so common, and victim-blaming narratives are easy to come upon around stories of domestic violence, Jessica told us she really wanted to show the complexity of who she was, her story, and what trauma really is,” April explained.

While domestic violence is not a new issue by any means, this film is particularly relevant right now, not just because of the US election but in light of the massive female empowerment push we are seeing in pop culture and society.

“It’s important to show stories of survivors, complex women, and especially women of color. With Jessica being part Indigenous American, we feel even more strongly that audiences need to know about her story,” said Katia.

In her advocacy work and speaking engagements, Jessica doesn’t just talk about domestic violence as a women’s issue, she also focuses on how it impacts the LGBTQ community, male survivors, and especially native American women.

The filmmakers pointed out that although we are seeing a number of regressive narratives around violence toward women from the current presidential administration, the majority of the film was made during the Obama administration and ended on a strong commitment from the Department of Justice that they will make tackling this issue a priority.

“Progress often doesn’t happen in a linear fashion, but the fact that it got to the level where Loretta Lynch made a statement about domestic violence gives me hope that things will change,” said April.

Jessica Lenahan with son Jessie, 1988 | photo courtesy of Jessica Lenahan

They take heart in the increased amount of political activism happening around the country, where people are raising their voices and taking a stand against harmful policies, and in support of marginalized groups. For their part, Katia and April will be launching an impact campaign to follow on from the film, which will include holding screenings with law enforcement and activist groups to create dialog around the importance of trauma-informed policing, as outlined by the DOJ under Obama.

We asked Katia and April how they were both impacted by ‘Home Truth’ over the period of filming, and they both shared their own insights.

“When we started filming, we were 26. At first we weren’t able to fully comprehend the complexity of Jessica’s story, but over the period of 9 years we were able to develop that. It is a privilege to do this type of work, even though it is hard. It does affect you when you see trauma up close, but we are proud of our commitment to the story and it is a testament to the strength of survivors,” said Katia.

April says telling Jessica’s story over a long period of time definitely shaped their filmmaking approach more than initially anticipated.

“Taking the time to tell the story taught us a lot about trauma, and that is the heart of this film. We don’t often see such a  focus on what trauma is because it is difficult to watch. Jessica’s attitude is that people need to see the difficulty in order for it not to continue happening. Our hope is that people will leave the theater understanding the reality of domestic violence and be able to look at it in a different way,” she said.

‘Home Truth’ will be screening its world premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York on June 11 and 12. For more information about future screenings and updates, visit the film’s website.

Jessica Lenahan with a photo of her and her four children Jessie, Rebecca, Katheryn and Leslie | photo by Megan Newton


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