March 31, 2021 621 PM
NEW YORK — The forthcoming documentary And So I Stayed follows the incarcerations, releases and advocacy work of three women who were each criminalized in the state of New York for fighting back against their abusers. While the film’s co-director Natalie Pattillo chose to focus her first documentary film on three domestic violence survivors in New York, her motivations to tell this story are drawn from much closer to home: her experiences with domestic violence in West Texas.
Raised in Alpine, Pattillo attended Alpine elementary, middle and high schools before completing a bachelor’s degree at Sul Ross State University. While living in West Texas, she also survived domestic abuse from a partner and suffered the loss of her half sister Jennifer to domestic violence in 2010.
“Those two experiences really shaped what I wanted to do as a journalist and as a person in general,” said Pattillo, who headed to New York City to complete a master’s program in journalism at Columbia University. “Before classes started, I had a clear understanding that it would be domestic violence that I would cover,” she said, “But what about it?”
An advisor at Columbia’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma asked if Pattillo had ever covered or thought of covering survivors who are criminalized for their acts of survival and self-defense, and the topic piqued her interest.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that males who kill female partners get an average prison sentence of 2 to 6 years, while females who kill male partners receive an average sentence of 15 years, despite the coalition’s findings that most females kill abusive partners in self-defense.
Those that try to leave an abuser are often up against dire consequences, being 70 times more likely to be killed by their abuser within two weeks of leaving, according to the Domestic Violence Intervention Program.
And So I Stayed is informed by those statistics, but pairs the hard data with the real, intimate stories of those who have survived and been incarcerated. Kim Dadou Brown, Nicole “Nikki” Addimando and Tanisha Davis were each convicted of crimes that they say were in self-defense against their abusers. While there was a legal aspect to each story, Pattillo didn’t want to make a true crime film about their cases.
“These women are already serving their time,” she said. “We’re making the documentary in which we capture the hopes and dreams of these survivors, their grief and any trauma they want to share with us, and the support they’ve received.”
After researching the subject at her advisor’s suggestion, Pattillo contacted Dadou Brown, a formerly incarcerated survivor and advocate who had served 17 years in prison for killing her abuser in self defense. The film follows Dadou Brown as she advocates for the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, a bill to reduce sentencing for domestic abuse survivors convicted of a crime.
For a while, the bill had stalled out in New York’s legislature, but as time passed and the legislative body changed, the act passed into law. “We thought we’d stop filming,” Pattillo said. “We had a happy ending, the film was over, activism works, Kim is incredible, done.” But her gut said to keep filming.
Pattillo began following the stories of two other women, one whose case a judge ruled did not qualify for the DVSJA, “despite the mountains of evidence she had,” Pattillo said, and another woman who was successfully resentenced under the DVSJA on March 9.
As Pattillo and her co-director Daniel A. Nelson were racing to finish the film this spring, Davis walked free after eight years in prison. Had the DVSJA existed at her time of sentencing, Davis would have served a maximum of five years.
Like the subjects of Pattillo’s film in New York, victims of domestic violence in West Texas have also faced criminal charges for self defense, said Gina Wilcox, the program coordinator and an advocate at Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend. In her nine years working at the center, Wilcox has seen firsthand the criminalization of survivors.
“Without violating client confidentiality, currently we’re dealing with someone who was asked by law enforcement if she fought back,” Wilcox said. “They told her the courts have followed through on it in other cases – that she could be charged with assault because she had fought back.”
Though Texas statutes protect acts of self-defense, Wilcox said in practice, she has seen clients face charges for it. “We had one [client] that was arrested – not here in Alpine – even though she told law enforcement when they responded that her partner had a gun and had threatened her with a gun,” Wilcox said. “He had a scratch on his neck where she had shoved him off of her when he was shaking her, and they arrested her. She’s still facing charges for that, they haven’t been dropped.”
Wilcox said she wishes courts had better training in the dynamics of abuse, hoping it could improve the outcomes for victims of domestic violence. “I feel like if something goes to a jury trial, they need to bring in expert witnesses to get the jury to see prolonged abuse over years and what it does to the victim’s psyche and their emotional regulatory system,” she said.
Pattillo reflected on what she hoped West Texas could work on. “There are ways any community can come up with to help survivors.. It starts with wanting to believe their experience, and how can we support them so it doesn’t get to this critical point?”
“I pursued this film for so long to help make people care,” Pattillo said. “It had to be about domestic violence, with my personal experience with it in a past relationship. I had left and still was dealing with the effects of systemic failures in protecting survivors, especially survivors with children.”
She hopes the film can premiere later this year, and the film team is planning an “impact campaign” to show the film in cities across the country and start conversations within those communities about criminalization of domestic violence survivors, as well as show the film in educational institutions and in prisons.
To support the film and its impact campaign, tax deductible contributions can be made to https://bit.ly/3cFuQux.
The Family Crisis Center offers counseling services, support groups, financial assistance and referrals for legal aid, housing and food assistance, among other resources, to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and violent crime. For more information visit familycrisiscenterofthebigbend.com. If you need assistance, the center operates a 24-hour hotline: 800-834-0654.