“I got in a fight with my wife and I slapped her,” says an unidentified male. After a pause, he adds: “I held her and punched the wall.”
The man, whose face is blurred to protect his identity, is speaking to a dozen convicted abusers seated around a table. They’re participating in a group therapy session, part of a state-mandated program for men convicted of domestic violence in California. Over the course of the year-long program, the men identify and reflect on the beliefs and attitudes that underlie their violent behavior.
The short documentary Group—a co-directorial effort from the Chapman University students Jack Mullinkosson, Ben Allen, Claire Cai, Meghan Wells, and Haley Saunders—observes the men as they undergo multiple weeks of the emotionally grueling therapy, in which a compassionate therapist challenges them to take responsibility for their actions and confront their ingrained notions of toxic masculinity.
Under the tutelage of their professor, Sally Rubin, the film students took a no-frills approach to the documentary’s complex subject matter. In the absence of flashy setups and editorialized interviews, the camera simply captures the men as they process their emotions and navigate personal growth. In striving for objectivity—inasmuch as that’s possible while creating a documentary—the filmmakers humanize their subjects. The men of Group come across as multifaceted individuals with complicated personal histories (many of them were abused themselves). They express a desire to change, although the process proves more difficult for some than others; a few men, in particular, display defense mechanisms and attempt to rationalize their abusive acts. Eventually, however, they demonstrate an openness to recognizing their fallibility.
Wells, one of the filmmakers, told The Atlantic that when she began working on the project, she struggled with it ethically. The idea that she was making a film about domestic abuse from the perspective of the perpetrators made her uncomfortable. “I didn’t like hearing some of their rationales,” she said. “I didn’t want any survivor to watch this and not feel supported.” This tension was also felt by some of the other co-directors. It resulted in many charged conversations and, in Wells’s case, some sleepless nights. “But I realized that while we know violence is bad, that doesn’t stop physical abuse from happening,” Wells continued. “Maybe we need another approach to get people to start talking about abuse … the conversation needs to look at how we can stop the cycle.”
The filmmakers mentioned that they were surprised to witness a substantial change in the men’s perspectives over the course of filming the group therapy sessions.
“I believe in alchemy,” Mullinkosson, one of the co-directors, said. “I think that with the right spell, anybody can turn rocks into gold. We watched, week after week, as these men went from apprentices to expert alchemists, capable of the perfect transmutation of a destructive thought pattern into sustainable morality.”
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