Interview with Chloé McFeters
Chloé McFeters of Tortoise and Finch Productions, LLC, is a survivor of domestic violence. She is also the director behind the recently released educational documentary You Look a Lot Like Me, which explores the insidious social pandemic of domestic violence in the U.S. This film takes us on a harrowing journey of several men, women, and an array of experts who work in the field of domestic violence prevention provides deeper contexts to the stories of the victims.
Meaghan Whalen, one of JDI's Fall 2015 interns, had the pleasure of sitting down with Chloé to discuss the film, her companion book, and her thoughts on a few other points.
JDI: How did you come to create You Look a Lot Like Me, the corresponding companion book, and the community education and discussion guide?
CM: I was working on a narrative film project about domestic violence with a director friend of mine and at some point mentioned to him that I wanted to make a ‘short’ documentary film about domestic violence. The scope of the project evolved and expanded over time, but that’s how it started—with a pretty simple desire to raise awareness about an issue that was personal for me and for many others I cared about, and the support of a generous friend who had the film equipment I needed to get started at the time.
JDI: What kind of responses have you been receiving since the release of the film and book?
CM: I’ve been humbled by the powerful response to You Look a Lot Like Me. I remember one young woman in particular who attended one of our pre-release focus groups. She had been fairly quiet before the screening, but once the lights came up and we invited participants to share their responses to You Look a Lot Like Me, she told us how, as a young girl of eight, she had come around a corner to find her father standing in front of their house with a gun to her mother’s head. He was surrounded by the police, who had thankfully been called when a neighbor heard them fighting. They later found a note he had written, which outlined his plan to murder his wife and children that day, and to commit suicide after they had been killed. The father was sentenced to about one year in prison, and when he was released, this young woman’s mother returned to the relationship. The young woman told us that, for all of her life, she believed she knew everything there was to know about domestic violence because she had witnessed it and lived through it herself. She said that she had spent so many years hating her mother and resenting her choices. She couldn’t understand why her mother had remained with this “monster,” and how she could have “chosen her abuser over her own children.” Then she went on to say, through tears, that the survivors and experts in You Look a Lot Like Me had just explained for her why her mother didn’t “just leave” her father, and that for the first time in her life, she understood the incredible complexity of this issue. She said, “All I want to do after seeing this film is run out of this room, call my mother, and tell her how much I love her and how grateful I am that she is still alive.” There are really no words for how moving that moment was for all of us, for every person in that room. Everyone who worked on this project had the hope that our efforts might, in some small way, help people to heal from their experience with abuse or at least feel less alone, so responses like that have meant a great deal.
JDI: How did you envision the film playing out? How were you able to pick and edit what would be in the finished product?
CM: Originally I envisioned something quite short. I thought that perhaps we would interview one organization and a couple of individuals who had experienced domestic violence firsthand, if I could find them. In hindsight, I think that was a good thing, because had I realized at the outset how large this project would become, or all that I didn’t know about the process of making a film, I doubt I would have had the courage to do it. My ignorance worked to my advantage in this case. Very quickly into the process, though, I realized “something short” was not an option and that this project would wind up being much larger in scope than I had initially anticipated. Things just moved forward from there.
In terms of deciding whose footage would make it into the final cut of You Look a Lot Like Me, I have to say that I found the entire process heartbreaking. Our first cut of the film was almost six hours long and it took a great deal of work to even get it down to that point. In the end, it really came down to how the different stories fit together to tell the one larger story. As a result, we wound up with the two-hour film you saw, although we also made a one-hour version.
JDI: What actions do you think should be taken in order to depict to the public that Domestic Violence is a very prevalent issue and to make further progress on this issue?
CM: First off, I think it’s important to acknowledge the incredible progress that has been made in such a relatively short time in this country. There is already so much more awareness and understanding of domestic violence. I interviewed many survivors who were in their 70s and 80s, and they were blown away by the changes they have witnessed over the past 30 years. So, I think it’s important to recognize and celebrate the successes. Many people have dedicated their lives to this work and their efforts haven’t been in vain.
That said, moving forward, I think the most effective way to get the public to pay closer attention to domestic violence is to continue to educate them about the realities of the issue. I think one of the most powerful ways to do that is to have survivors of domestic violence share their stories. In my personal opinion, no amount of formal training can capture or convey the truths and nuances of abuse in quite the same way as someone who has had to navigate and survive it firsthand. You can believe in so many misconceptions and stereotypes until you’ve been confronted with what’s real and what’s true about a person or a situation. When you can get people to see or experience what is truly “human” about domestic violence, people pay closer attention.
On the other hand, for many legitimate reasons, many survivors are not in the position to be able to come forward, or they might not want to come forward—which is completely understandable—and so we need other people involved as well—family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, educators—those who are willing to step up and be champions for this cause and for those who need help.
I think we also need to continue to combat stereotypes— i.e., that domestic violence is only about physical violence, that it only occurs within heterosexual relationships, that it only happens to women or to those who have already been witness to abuse. These remain pervasive stereotypes that need to continue to be addressed.
JDI: What kind of advice do you have for those who wish to help others that don’t know much about domestic violence?
CM: I can only speak to what I have found helpful in my own life. It can be very difficult to see someone you care about in a situation where you’re concerned for her/his mental or emotional wellbeing or her/his physical safety. Our natural instinct, I think, is to try to “fix” the problem, which can become frustrating, for you and for the person who is being abused. I see those frustrations as real and human and that they usually come from a place of genuine love and concern. But when one is living with domestic violence, even well-intentioned responses can be difficult to receive because one is already constantly hearing those conversations in one’s own head. Sometimes, the thing one most needs is to just be able to share a little without the fear of further anger, judgment, criticism, or disappointment.
With that in mind, I would say that compassionate listening is one of the most important gifts that can be given to someone. I would also suggest validating what they are going through. Just to hear someone say “I am really sorry, that must be incredibly difficult for you, I believe you, and what you have just described to me is not your fault,” - just those words, expressed with genuine care and concern, can be enormous. Allowing a person to make their decisions on their own terms and in their own time is important, as is recognizing that there is much about domestic violence that is complex and that people choose to remain in their relationships for a variety of reasons that are often deeply personal, embarrassing, painful and also legitimate.
Lastly, you might express concern for your loved one’s safety and gently encourage them—perhaps with your help—to contact a confidential domestic violence hotline or service provider. There are many fantastic organizations out there that can help guide the safety-planning process and that would be of great value to any person who is being abused. In the end, I think it’s really about letting someone know that you are there for them, that they deserve to be treated with respect and loved in a healthy way, and then giving them space to do what feels right or doable for them and, in many cases, for their children.
JDI: How do you think your film and book differ from other projects that have been done on this issue?
CM: I have seen several really great documentaries on domestic violence in recent years, and I applaud those filmmakers. As a survivor, I am grateful for their work and for the attention that their work brings to this issue. I haven’t seen that there are films about domestic violence that feature testimony from an abuser who has completed an abuser education program done in quite the same way as in my film. I also haven’t seen that there are many films that address the fact that males can also be victims of domestic violence or that discuss domestic violence in the LGBTQ communities. I think those would be some of the ways in which my film and book differ from others. We tried to tear down multiple stereotypes in this film and I hope that we did.
JDI: What is one of the benefits of screening a film like You Look a Lot Like Me?
CM: One of the benefits of bringing films like You Look a Lot Like Me into universities, professional organizations, hospitals, corporations, etc. is that you are able to reach a large number of people while giving an authentic face to the issue of domestic violence. As people continue to hear directly from survivors about what they have lived through, what their journey was, what they needed—emotionally and materially—to get out and stay out, they will come to care more about this issue and they will also get better at responding to it. Many of the individuals who are teaching and studying on these campuses, or who are receptionists or nurses or patients in these physicians’ waiting rooms, or who are employees of these companies, are victims or perpetrators of violence. A film that features survivors’ stories is a powerful way to convey that this is everyone’s issue, and the more we can get people talking about it, the better.
This film was also created with university students in mind. It is our belief that those studying in the fields of social work, marriage and family therapy, criminal justice, women’s studies, gender studies, and public policy would find this film to be of particular value.
JDI: What kinds of steps do you think need to be made in order to move in the right direction?
CM: In a word: money! You need money to combat domestic violence, to educate the public, to provide shelter, to run a 24-hour hotline, to host community events, to change hearts and minds and culture. That’s the first, and biggest, step.
Domestic violence programs in the U.S. and around the world are, from what I have observed, constantly fighting an uphill battle to get funding. That just shouldn’t be the case when we are talking about such an enormous human rights and public health crisis. Organizations involved in the work of domestic violence awareness, education, and prevention are populated by incredibly intelligent, dedicated individuals who already have many effective solutions, programs, ideas, and inspirations on how to tackle these problems. Funding is a hugely important piece of the puzzle.
In the meantime, there are victims who cannot receive services and have to be turned away at shelters due to a lack of beds. They remain unsafe. Children become homeless. Women and men are injured or murdered.
I feel we need to continually remind policy makers and those in leadership positions that domestic violence affects us all, affects the safety, productivity, and progress of our society, and needs generous funding on many levels.
JDI: How can people learn more about You Look a Lot Like Me?
CM: For those interested in learning more about You Look a Lot Like Me, I would invite them to visit the film’s website at www.youlookalotlikeme.com. A lot of information is available in our press kit, which can also be found on the site.
JDI: Anything else you’d like to add?
CM: Thank you for the opportunity to share a bit about You Look a Lot Like Me with your audience. It’s been an honor to have Jane Doe, Inc. involved with our film and we look forward to staying connected to all of the wonderful work that you continue to do every day. We are very fortunate to have such an effective state coalition and I hope You Look a Lot Like Me helps to shine a spotlight on all that you do to help victims and survivors stay safe and live empowered lives.
Chloé McFeters is a director, producer, and personal historian. In 2014, she completed production on You Look a Lot Like Me, a feature-length educational documentary exploring the social pandemic of domestic violence in the United States, which was produced through her company, Tortoise and Finch Productions, LLC. To learn more about Chloé’s work, please visit www.youlookalotlikeme.com and www.tortoiseandfinch.com.