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Our partner Women Make Movies brought to our attention the upcoming broadcast of the film Sin By Silence on the Discovery Channel on October 17th. Sin By Silence follows Brenda Clubine, who has been locked up for 26 years for murdering her abusive husband. She started Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), the first support and advocacy group of its kind – for women in prison, by women in prison. I had the opportunity to interview filmmaker Olivia Klaus about the film.
Telegraph21: What inspired you to make Sin by Silence?
Olivia Klaus: My world was shattered by a three-minute phone call. I had always heard about domestic violence, but it was a problem that happened to other people. Yet, there it was…on the other end of the phone. A close friend of mine was a victim. As my mind started racing for ways to help or fix things, I realized that I was completely helpless. I had no answers, no solutions. I held that phone in silence as I heard the dark secrets of a seemingly perfect marriage unravel.
My painstaking journey to help continued as I started discovering women’s shelters and organizations. Yet, they offered extremely limited resources for victims and those trying to help. Then a conversation with a colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Leonard – author of Convicted Survivors- changed everything. She started talking about her own inspiration for solutions to the crisis at hand. She suggested that my quest include a trip to the most unlikely place – prison!
Since that first visit to prison, and meeting the incredible survivors of Convicted Women Against Abuse, I found that I could never pretend that life was the way it was before. These women were serving life in prison for killing their abusive husbands and I slowly realized they were the experts on domestic violence that I had been searching for. As months of meetings went on and relationships were built, the women soon found out that my background was filmmaking and approached me to help tell their stories. I knew with this request came a long journey, yet I knew their voices must be heard. If these women’s stories could be heard beyond prison walls, then I just knew that countless lives would be saved…..and Sin by Silence was born.
Telegraph21: What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
Olivia Klaus: The title of the film comes from an Abraham Lincoln quote that states, “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards of men.” So, it is our duty to start conversations about this silent problem so that we begin to create environments for victims of abuse to feel comfortable to finally ask for help. To finally speak up and say to that friend, “Is everything alright? I’m really worried about you.” Just saying such a simple phrase could eventually be the difference between life and death for someone. With four women dying a day due to violence in the home, it’s definitely worth the effort to speak up!
Telegraph21: How did you first connect with the organization Convicted Women Against Abuse?
Olivia Klaus: When I had started on the journey to help my friend, I started discovering women’s shelters and organizations. Yet, they offered extremely limited resources for victims and those trying to help. Then a conversation with a colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Leonard – author of Convicted Survivors – changed everything. She started talking about her own inspiration for solutions to the crisis at hand. She suggested that my quest include a trip to the most unlikely place – prison!
The first time I visited the California Institution for Women was in 2001. I was nervous that evening, wondering whom I was about to meet. The group Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA) was comprised of women who had killed the men they once loved. But when the meeting started, I was slowly introduced to women who could be my neighbors, my friends, my sister…or even myself.
Since that first meeting, I have been unable to turn my back on the women of CWAA. They, along with my friend, opened my eyes to a part of the world that I never knew existed. Once that silence had been broken, I found that I could never pretend that life was the way it was before.
Telegraph21: What can be learned from Brenda Clubine’s experience?
Olivia Klaus: I think the most important thing that Brenda and the women of Convicted Women Against Abuse experiences teach us is that abusive relationships can happen to anyone. Abuse sees no boundaries of age, race, class, religion or education – and the statistics show us the fact that 1 in 3 women will experience some sort of abuse in their lifetime. Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship having to defend their life. In a split second everything can change.
Telegraph21: What was the most difficult part about filming in the California Institution for Women?
Olivia Klaus: Filming didn’t just happen overnight. There were many approvals needed from the California Department of Corrections. Yet, since I had been a volunteer with CWAA, something that could take a media crew up to six months to gain approval happen for me in one month’s time. I was already an ‘employee’ in the eyes of the officials and employees at the institution. They knew my heart and knew my passion to help these women.
Month after month, year after year, I drove the 70 miles to be at every CWAA meeting. I listened to experiences that were living nightmares. I began trying to raise funds. The women of CWAA believed that they could be a part of impacting the “outside” world and gave the first $1000 – a donation made up from average wages of only 10 cents an hour.
We began the process of filming countless CWAA meetings under the horrible production conditions of prison and state schedules. By participating and listening in on these interactions, we documented several women’s epic stories as they began to discover hope and dignity. Many interviewees openly expressed gratitude for the freedom to tell “the whole story” to someone with whom they felt comfortable. A surprisingly large proportion of the women stated that this was their first opportunity to openly reveal their lives, their abuse, their experiences, and their perceptions. Many members who used to remain in the background started to find their voice and members started inviting other inmates they met on the yard. An entirely new sense of purpose was given to the women of CWAA and a sense of empowerment came from finally being able to have their voices be heard.
Telegraph21: Your source of inspiration?
Olivia Klaus: People have always been my inspiration. I have always had a passion to be a voice for the voiceless. So, I guess it was only natural for me to become a filmmaker because I believe that changing the world starts with a story. Simple or complicated, it doesn’t matter. A good story, well told, can change lives, change laws and can change you.
Telegraph21: What are your thoughts about the continued misconceptions about Domestic Violence in the United States?
Olivia Klaus: Not too long ago, newspapers were cluttered with headlines of the very public act of violence against Rihanna. Overnight, Rihanna’s private nightmare became a public debate. “She deserved it.” “She is trying to get attention.” “She started it.” These kinds of comments revealed a startling response to teen dating violence and the statistics prove it – 1 in 3 teens experience abuse, 2 out of 3 teens who experience abuse never report it.Sadly, Domestic and dating violence isn’t going away anytime soon. Laws are not able to change what goes on behind closed doors. I do think the government plays a vital role in the solution for a violence-free future, yet I think the more important role lies within communities, friends, family and neighbors who step in to help someone experiencing abuse. Every day we can take a step towards improving the quality of our own lives and communities. I wish there was a quick solution, but the fact is that this is going to be a long journey towards change.
One simple thing that everyone can do to make a difference, is to watch Sin by Silence when it premieres on Investigation Discovery on Oct 17th at 8pm ET/PT. Nearly 78 million hones will have the opportunity to get to know the incredible CWAA women. I encourage everyone to use this opportunity to invite their friends over to learn more about the issues. Through the women of CWAA stories of terror and hope, we can all better understand the cycle of violence, the signs of an abuser, and how each and every one of us is responsible for changing the tragedy of domestic violence.
Telegraph21: Do you think the criminal justice system in the United States provides sufficient services for women in prison?
Olivia Klaus: To this day, Convicted Women Against Abuse remains the only inmate-initiated battered women support group in the entire U.S. prison system. Women who remain behind bars, serving a life sentence, are in pain and need the resources to help them heal. Yet, unfortunately most Corrections Departments in this country would rather spend their budgets on guard salaries than help the people who need it the most.
That is what makes CWAA so amazing and unique – started by inmates, run by inmates, to help inmates. We should all take a lesson in activism from these women. Because if they can come out of the worst nightmares, to become healed and empowered women who have helped change laws from behind prison walls; than we most certainly can do our part to make a difference out here by inviting our friends over to watch the television premier of Sin by Silence on Oct 17th and start the ripple effect to make our homes and communities safer.
ABOUT THE FILM: http://www.SinBySilence.com
ABOUT THE BROADCAST: http://www.InvestigationDiscovery.com/Silence