Doco explores family violence

By 18 November 2015Feature, The latest

A brave Australian filmmaker is tackling the issue of domestic violence from a different perspective in new ABC documentary Call Me Dad.

By Caris Bizzaca.

A group of men shake hands, sipping cups of coffee, catching up on each other’s week. Some have tattoos, some are clean shaven, while others sit in silence, hands in pockets. They’re all there, in the same room in Melbourne, for Heavy M.E.T.A.L.

No, not the music. The ‘M.E.T.A.L’ actually stands for Men’s Education Towards Anger and Life.  Because each of these men have one thing in common: they have all arrived at this sixteen-week course, aimed at fathers who are, or risk being, perpetrators of family violence. And they are there to change their attitudes and behaviour towards women.

But there’s another person in the room. A young woman, armed with a camera. Director Sophie Wiesner. The Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) graduate has been following the stories these men, filming over 100 hours of footage, which after four months, she will begin to turn into the documentary Call Me Dad.

For Wiesner, there’s something personal about Call Me Dad. The idea came to her while she was interviewing people at a father’s centre about quitting smoking for a cancer brochure and something about it stuck.

“What made me persist with it was there is family violence in my own family,” she says.

“My mother’s father was very abusive and I grew up with stories about his violence and alcoholism and so I guess on some level I really wanted to know what might have been going on for him and their family.”

It took some time and a few false starts before they were able to find a service provider like Heavy M.E.T.A.L and founder/facilitator David Nugent, who was willing to work with them.

“I always thought there was this tremendous appetite from participants to share their story. The challenge was with the organisations that work with these participants who were understandably very protective of the families they work with, because in many cases they’re very vulnerable,” Wiesner says.

Call Me Dad, which airs on ABC on 26 November, follows the stories of a group of abusive fathers, and several in particular, as Heavy M.E.T.A.L focuses on making them accountable for their behaviour.

The timing is no coincidence.

November is Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month and arrives with a wave of support and discussion behind it.

It’s hard to decipher exactly when domestic violence entered the zeitgeist, except that it’s clear it has.

In January, Rosie Batty was awarded Australian of the Year for giving a voice to thousands of victims of domestic violence through her own tragic story and her continued championing of efforts to stop violence in homes.

It’s an issue Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned his sights to in the first weeks of his leadership, saying in late September  that violence against women “one of the great shames of Australia. It is a national disgrace”. He said disrespecting women was “unAustralian” and called for a cultural change.

For Call Me Dad, it became clear the film had greater impact than they first imagined when it was selected for the inaugural Good Pitch Australia in 2014 – an event that brings filmmakers like Wiesner together with NGOs, foundations, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and potential corporate and brand partners.

“That really clarified the intention and galvanised the project as something that was bigger than the sum of its parts,” Screen Australia’s Documentary Investment/Development Manager Sam Griffin says.

With the partnership of Good Pitch and the Documentary Australian Foundation, Wiesner says they have an even greater chance of enacting change.

She says they are launching a campaign so that Call Me Dad will be available for people to host their own screenings, but also to encourage groups to connect with partners Fair Agenda and White Ribbon.

“This screening campaign will make sure the film has impact and that’s an amazing opportunity to catalyse some positive change,” she says.

For Griffin, getting behind a story like Call Me Dad from early-on was almost a no-brainer.

Griffin had first met Wiesner during her time at AFTRS, saying it was clear back then she was talented. But it’s that combination of Call Me Dad’s story and the lengths that Wiesner had gone to achieve it that make it so significant.

“It’s an important film; it’s an important issue and Sophie had put in a lot of work and gained the trust of these men, which we acknowledge is not easy to do,” she says.

“Here’s a group of men who are willing to talk about their feelings and acknowledge the challenges in doing so and that is a rare thing, but they’re also willing to do that on camera. That’s really a testament to Sophie’s skills as a director, and as a person.

Wiesner says she never felt in danger, but was always mindful of her safety during the months of filming in Melbourne. She says she has kept in contact with Nugent and the men featured within the film and credit them for taking a risk and trusting her in the first place.

“In each case life has continued for them and there have been positive and negative developments,” she says. “Change is actually slow and often doesn’t move in just one direction…. My observation is change is something they need to commit to lifelong really and it’s not something where people can think that they’re fixed – it’s consistent work.”

After so long talking about Call Me Dad, Wiesner is keen to finally get the film in front of audiences. She says all involved have seen the doco and are on the whole supportive, but understandably nervous about the response.

For Wiesner, Call Me Dad deepens our understanding of family violence: its impact and the types of abuse that can characterise a relationship.

“I think it points towards one of many tools that are needed to stop the harm,” she says.

“Working with perpetrators is really difficult and complex work but unless we look at the people who are choosing to be abusive then we’re not going to prevent people being harmed in the way that they are.”

Call Me Dad will have its premiere on 26 November, 8.30pm on ABC. Visit www.callmedadfilm.com to find out more.