Examining America’s Family Courts
COM prof’s documentary highlights national scandal
Filmmaker Garland Waller deals in unpleasant facts. Take this one: according to the American Psychological Association, fathers who abuse their families are more likely to win custody of their kids than those who don’t. In her latest documentary, No Way Out But One, Waller, a College of Communication assistant professor of film and television, brings one desperate mother’s custody struggle to the screen—and, she hopes, to living rooms nationwide.
In 1994, Holly Collins ran. Despite her broken nose, her son’s fractured skull, and other terrifying reports of alleged abuse, a judge had awarded her husband full custody of their children. When her three kids—then all under 12 years of age—pleaded with her to protect them, Collins took them and ran. The four unlikely fugitives swerved across the continent and away from the clutches of the FBI before making a dash for the Netherlands. There, Collins blurted out a plea for asylum; after years in refugee camps, she would become the first American woman to be granted sanctuary in the northern European country because of domestic violence.
No Way Out But One is a $40,000 documentary with all the ingredients of a taut big-budget flick. Waller kept the price tag for her documentary about Collins below Hollywood averages by adding her filmmaking students to the production team.
“I picked the students who were politically committed to this kind of issue and really wanted to go the extra mile,” she says. “As a producer, not as a professor, I love working with those people who say, ‘Teach me, show me, and I’ll give you my time and energy.’”
Not everyone—the original family court judge included—has always been as convinced about the veracity of Collins’ abuse allegations as have Waller and her students. Even 18 years later, Waller has faced down doubters at screenings. “I am confident, 100 percent, that we have told the truth,” she says. “We’ve got FBI documents, legal documents, documents from the hearings, and letters from the doctors who saw the children.”
The film’s editor, Erika Street (COM’11), who also put together a 14-minute short of the documentary, shares that confidence. She sifted through a wealth of background information, and when she got lost in the details, appreciated being dragged up for a look at the bigger story. “The project was a good reminder of how important it is to have people watch your edits at various stages,” Street says.
No Way Out But One first aired in late October on the Documentary Channel and has had several subsequent showings. The film will be available for purchase in March, and Waller is optimistic that it will find a wider audience. Her previous documentary on custody battles, the award-winning Small Justice: Little Justice in America’s Family Courts, was largely restricted to film festivals; Waller suspects that was because it was such tough viewing. “I wasn’t able to find one story that had a happy ending,” she says.
Collins’ story is different (we won’t completely spoil the surprise). But there’s a wider tale that needs a happily-ever-after, too. Waller says abused women who want to win custody battles are often advised to keep quiet about the cruelty; it improves their chances in court. It’s a wrong that Waller—and the students who worked with her—are determined to right.
Find a trailer and more info on Garland Waller’s documentary here.
Andrew Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this story appeared in the spring 2012 edition of COMtalk.11 Comments