A film tries to make a difference for domestic violence survivors

By Melena Ryzik

In 2013, Tanisha Davis, a 26-year-old woman from Rochester, New York, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for killing her boyfriend, at whose hands she suffered, she said, nearly seven years of abuse, including choking, death threats and a beating on the night he died. The judge agreed that she was a victim of domestic violence but said her response did not merit leniency. “You handled the situation all wrong,” he told her. “You could have left.”

In 2021, because of a new law that allows domestic violence survivors more nuanced consideration in the courts, the same judge released Davis, thanks in part to a documentary that helped frame her case.

It’s not uncommon for documentary projects to influence legal proceedings once they’ve found an audience and built public attention. But the film that helped Davis, “And So I Stayed,” was not yet released — it wasn’t even finished — when the filmmakers, Natalie Pattillo and Daniel A. Nelson, put together a short video for the court, describing her life.

“You could see the strength of the ties she had to her family and the strength of the support she would have” if she were released, said Angela N. Ellis, one of her lawyers. The prosecutor and judge both mentioned watching the footage when they agreed, in March, to set her free.

In her eight years in prison, Davis, 34, spoke to her son, now 15, every day. Now that she’s home, “I can just call him in the next room,” she said. “I can’t even explain that joy. I cry happy tears all the time.”

For the filmmakers, it was an unexpectedly bright ending to an often heartbreaking and troubling film. “And So I Stayed,” which premiered Saturday at the Brooklyn Film Festival, is personal for Pattillo, who is a survivor herself and whose sister was killed by a boyfriend in 2010. The documentary grew out of her thesis project at Columbia Journalism School, where she met Nelson, her co-director.

“I didn’t realize how common it was, the gravity of women being incarcerated for defending themselves or their children,” Pattillo said. “Once I found out, I couldn’t stop reporting,” in an effort to show just how misunderstood and punitive these cases are within the justice system.

The film’s first focus was Kim Dadou Brown, who served 17 years in prison for killing her abusive boyfriend. She became an advocate, traveling to Albany to needle New York lawmakers about the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, the long-simmering legislation that eventually helped free Davis. Introduced in 2011, it was finally passed in 2019, after Democrats flipped the state Senate.

The act is among the few laws in the country that grant judges more leniency in sentencing domestic violence victims who commit crimes against their abusers. It follows a growing, research-backed understanding of the patterns of abusive relationships and the powerful hold they have on people within them.

“Leaving is the hardest part” and the most dangerous, Dadou Brown said. “I thought that all men hit, and so I stayed with mine so I knew which way the blows would come.”

After Dadou Brown, a Rochester native and former health care worker, was paroled in 2008, she volunteered with survivors and crisscrossed the state for rallies — even when money was tight because her felony status made jobs hard to find, she said. With 17 earrings (one for each year of her incarceration) and her signature false eyelashes, “she’s just a force,” Pattillo said. “It’s pure tenacity. That’s Kim.”

When the bill passed, there was elation among its supporters and the filmmakers. And they kept their cameras rolling.

One case that was considered a surefire test of the act was that of Nicole Addimando, a young mother of two in Poughkeepsie, New York, who in 2017 fatally shot Christopher Grover, her live-in boyfriend and the children’s father. The film includes police camera footage of that night, when she was found disoriented and driving around in the wee hours, her 4- and 2-year-olds in the back seat.

Her case made national headlines because of the severity of the abuse she said she endured: bites and black eyes; bruises and burns to her body, including while she was pregnant, that were documented by medical professionals; rapes that Grover videotaped and uploaded to a porn site. In the film, a social worker calls it not just assault but “sexual torture.” In 2020, Addimando was sentenced to 19 years to life for second-degree manslaughter; the judge denied that the survivors justice act was applicable.

“I felt like we failed her,” said Dadou Brown, who was at the sentencing.

Although there are no nationwide statistics on the number of women incarcerated after defending themselves against abusers, federal research suggests that about half the women in prison have experienced past physical abuse or sexual violence, a majority from romantic partners. Black women are disproportionately victimized through both intimate partner violence and the justice system; they are the most likely to be killed by a romantic partner and more likely to end up in prison, according to Bernadine Waller, a scholar at Adelphi University.

In bringing stories like these to the screen, said Nelson, the filmmaker, the aim was not to dispute who pulled a trigger but to contextualize those convicted. “The legal system forces you to create the perfect victim,” he said, “and a prosecutor will do everything in their power to characterize a survivor into not fitting into that box.” (In Addimando’s case, the judge said she “reluctantly consented” to the sexual abuse.)

Garrard Beeney, a lawyer for Addimando, who is awaiting a decision on her appeal, said the documentary’s examination of the way the judicial system treats survivors is “a necessary, but I also think, not sufficient step” in changing the process. The police, prosecutors and judges have to be educated on how to think about domestic violence, he said. “We need that kind of retraining more immediately than a gradual process of understanding.”

For Pattillo, who had two of her three children while making the film, some moments felt overwhelmingly raw. “There’s survivor’s guilt, always, when you’re dealing with trauma,” she said, adding, in reference to Addimando, “Why did I get to be OK and not Nikki? Why do her kids not get to be tucked in by her every night?”

But it was also “very healing,” she added, “to have a hand in making sure the survivors feel seen and heard and believed through this film.”

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