Gaslight (1944) and Domestic Violence Awareness Month

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Gaslight (1944) George Cukor
AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center

It was a great pleasure not only to see a wonderful film like Gaslight (1944) at the AFI Silver, but also to hear a panel discussion afterward on an important topic: domestic violence in general and “gaslighting” in particular. If “gaslighting” is an unfamiliar term, it is “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.” (Oxford Dictionary)

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The event was organized and introduced by Tali Elitzur, a licensed therapist and Executive Director of Aha! Moment, a group that seeks “to raise awareness about the unique mental health issues faced by survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and/or trafficking.”

Next, Elitzur (whose husband Haggai hosts the excellent Noir Talk podcast) introduced writer and film historian Imogen Sara Smith (author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City), who introduced the film.

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Smith reiterated that the process of “gaslighting” can be confusing to the victim who doesn’t necessarily even know they’re being abused. In this case, a husband (Charles Boyer) schemes to convince his wife (Ingrid Bergman) that she’s insane. (The film also stars Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, and a 17-year-old Angela Lansbury in her first film appearance.)

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What seems to be an otherwise happy marriage turns into a nightmare. Smith also pointed out that the themes in this version of the film are stronger than both the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play and the 1940 film version directed by Thorold Dickinson. In the case of the 1944 version, the script (by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston) expands and enhances the depth of the two lead characters. More interesting still, the choices for the leads went against type: Boyer, frequently charming and gentle in his roles, is manipulative and conniving. Bergman, always the picture of health and vigor, shows herself filled with weakness and doubt as she descends into near madness. The film also uses various noir techniques (not only in its cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg) of dread and claustrophobia, underlying the imbalance of power in the relationship. Like most all situations of “gaslighting,” the abuser keeps the abused from any situations that might bring help. It is a film both devastating and cathartic.

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L-R: Nadia Hashimi, Kathleen Buhle Biden, Paula Lucas, Gabriela Romo, Imogen Sara Smith, Dominic Goodall

After the film, the audience was treated to a panel discussion of the film, domestic violence and more. The panel was led by Nadia Hashimi, an Afghan-American pediatrician and bestselling novelist.

Panelist Paula Lucas, founder and Executive Director of Pathways to Safety International, spoke of the domestic abuse she and her three children suffered (and escaped from) while living in Dubai. Lucas said that the biggest factor in her abuse was isolation. “There was no one to go to,” she said. Even her husband’s family would try to excuse his abuse by saying things like, “It’s horrible, but he loves you.” What caused her to finally seek help? The abuse of her children.

Kathleen Buhle Biden, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, mentioned that physical abuse always involves emotional abuse as well. She urged victims to reach out to the many resources available, stating that sometimes victims are reluctant to talk to friends and family. Biden pointed out that when someone actually listens and provides confirmation for the victim’s abuse, it lifts the victim up and gives them tremendous energy (which we see in Ingrid Bergman’s character in the film).

Dominic Goodall is a Project Coordinator with the House of Ruth Maryland Training Institute. He remarked that domestic violence crosses all cultures. “Prisons don’t need bars.” The victims of domestic abuse can easily forget reality when faced with an entirely different set of “facts.” If you’re told something enough, you begin to believe it, regardless of your culture. He encouraged victims to be a foil to the abusive partner’s voice.

Gabriela Romo, a bilingual and bicultural psychotherapist in private practice with immigrant survivors of domestic violence, cautioned “If you see something that doesn’t look right, do something about it.” As a psychotherapist she tries to “lift the veil” to uncover psychological abuse, provide support, and move victims toward healing and a better picture of the future.

Imogen Sara Smith spoke to the impact of the film, citing it as one of several films that were produced in this era that focused on women being abused by families, movies such as Suspicion (1941), Caught (1949), Secret Beyond the Door (1947) and others. Part of the success and popularity of these films was directly related to an interest in psychological ideas as well as the noir themes of crime, alienation, guilt and war trauma. During WWII, women had joined the workforce in large numbers and after the war were being sent back home, giving up their jobs now that the men were back. The home became for some a place of isolation and danger. These movies were marketed as thrillers and suspense films, but they also delved into some deep psychological issues.

Smith also commented that movies – both then and now – have the power to affect people and point to larger issues that go far beyond mere entertainment. That’s not necessarily what Hollywood is aiming for, but those issues emerge nonetheless. Although things have improved somewhat, Hollywood still struggles in trying to give women a voice in acting, directing, and practically every other aspect of filmmaking. Of course onscreen violence has clearly escalated since the days of the Production Code, allowing films to depict violence in ways that were once only suggested. Yes, these films are our entertainment, but they can often make you feel violated.

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I applaud Elitzur, the panelists, AFI Silver, and everyone else who had a hand in this event. Not only was it a wonderful experience to see such a great film on the big screen (and a 35mm print, at that), but the discussion afterward was an important and eye-opening event. I hope this will become an annual event at the AFI and that other theaters will program similar events.

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6 thoughts on “Gaslight (1944) and Domestic Violence Awareness Month

  1. Pingback: The Best of 2017: Rewatches | Journeys in Darkness and Light

  2. Pingback: Movies Watched in October 2017 Part II | Journeys in Darkness and Light

  3. Talk about using their powers for good – I’m sure many in the audience who just came to see the movie learned a lot about issues that they might never have considered before.

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