Vanessa Engle’s, Love you to Death, aired last night on BBC Two. The documentary is
screening at a time when domestic violence is at the forefront of national conversation.
Anne-Marie Birch was strangled by her husband of 25 years in a field. Afterwards, he calmly walked back home to their home in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, drank two pints at the pub before telephoning the police to let them know what he had done.
Birch was later sentenced to a mandatory 25 years in prison.
Their 16 year old daughter, Molly, describes how her father stalked and threatened her mother.
“He was stalking mum constantly. When she was walking the dog he would be just behind her. When we drove to school he was once in a screen mask and in a costume holding up a sign saying ‘I love you’ waiting for us to drive past. The last time I saw her she was on the phone to the police,” she tells Vanessa Engle in her documentary Love you to Death, screened last night on BBC Two.
The murder of Anne-Marie Birch, 47, is a case all too familiar in Britain.
Kevin Newtown, 45, strangled his wife of 23 years with a dog lead at her home in Pencoed, near Bridgend after she asked him for a divorce. She had suffered decades of domestic abuse.
Their younger daughter, Sameera, 17, describes how one day her father “lit the house on fire” while she, her two sisters and mother were all in the house.
Mr. Newtown would hide his wife’s shoes and car keys so she couldn’t go to work. He downloaded an app on her phone so that whenever she got a phone call or text message it would speak out the name of the caller.
The mother of three was strangled in her bedroom on Sunday 14 July 2013.
Mr. Newtown is currently jailed for life, with a minimum sentence of 18 years.
In 2013, 86 women were killed by a husband, boyfriend or male ex partner in Britain. On average, seven women a month.
Vanessa Engle’s ‘Love you to Death’ unveils the stories of these 86 women murdered by their male partner of ex partner during one calendar year, form 1st January 2013 to 31st December 2013.
“I wanted to make a film about the asymmetry of men and women. It is quite hard for people to understand the disparity between men and women,” Engle tells me. “Statistics make it clear that women are in subservient power to men.”
In 2013 164 women were murdered in Britain. Eighty-six were killed by a male partner or ex-partner. Comparatively, 381 men were murdered, with 12 killed by a partner or former partner.
“These statistics crystallise the fact that there is still an underlying issue of a dominant culture of men,” Engle says.
Engle is a formidable, almost intimidating woman. As a British documentary filmmaker, she has been making films for the BBC since 1988. A staunch feminist, this is not the first time she has delved into the topic of social, economic and cultural disparity between men and women. She has been attending marches organised by “Women Against Violence Against Women” since she was a teenager, and in 2010 she directed ‘Women,’ a film about three generations of feminism.
Slightly grey at the hairline, her spryly jet black mane is scooped up in a messy bun. Her almost black-brown eyes never loose focus. There is an intensity to Vanessa Engle that is both engrossing but simultaneously daunting. Her soft, melodic voice is marked by the strength of her convictions.
“People, particularly students see women in positions of power. They are growing up in an age where women are occupying important roles on boards and within political realms so they ask themselves, ‘what is the problem?”
But for Engle there is a severe problem, and this problem is the explicit disparity between men and women, a disparity which is evident in the statistics that indicate the number of women suffering at the hands of their violent make partner or ex partner.
Her documentary is airing at a time when domestic abuse is being heavily investigated by the government.
In March 2014, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published a report titled ‘Everyone’s business’. The report found significant weaknesses in the service provided to victim’s of domestic abuse by the police.
In response to the findings, the HMIC visited every police force in England Wales to assess the progress they had made in responding to and protecting victims of domestic abuse.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Zoe Billingham, who led the inspection, said: “When we first inspected the police response to domestic abuse, we found forces demonstrated a startling lack of awareness of domestic abuse and inconsistent or poor practice.”
On Tuesday 15th December the HMIC responded with their follow up report, “Increasing everyone’s business: A progress report on the police response to domestic abuse’. The report highlights that there has been a 31 per cent increase in the number of domestic abuse related crimes reported in England and Wales since the publication of the report.
Billingham stated that “the HMIC is encouraged that this inspection found that police leaders, officers, PCSCOs and staff have acted on the messages of our 2014 report and now see tackling domestic abuse as an important priority for them.”
Despite this Government initiative Engle is adamant that “abuse is everywhere.”
“Making a film about abuse, I have now become very alert to abuse behaviour all around me. There is abuse in all kind of relationships, there are power struggles everywhere.”
Whether this is the “friend who is constantly late to meet you, a partner who only ever makes tea for himself or the colleague who constantly leaves you out of work functions, abuse takes the form in a whole manner of professional and personal relationships,” Engle says.
Engle tells me that her film “has hit a raw nerve” with her. “I am hyper alert to any form of abuse, and it is not a good feeling.”
She breaks up the testimonials of her one hour film with still shots of suburbia: seemingly bland domestic images of farmyard animals, wooden spoons, kitchen tables and tatty canary yellow window shades. These household shots are further testimony that abuse can lie in the most biennial of environments. The result is unsettling.
“There is a deeper level to this film, it is very destabilising,” she tell me solemnly.
Domestic abuse has become a national issue. The government has launched a campaign citing how domestic abuse is ‘everybody’s business’.
Despite its dominance in the media, Chris Green, Director of the White Ribbon Campaign tells me that “89% of ongoing violence is perpetuated.”
He tells me that the usual response to his campaign is: “I didn’t know about you- what a good thing it is to involve men, as it is men who cause most of the violence.”
It is a sentiment that Vanessa Engle resuscitates in her film ‘Love you to Death’. The victims are from a cross range of ethnicities, ages and economic demographics. Some have suffered from abuse throughout the course of their relationship; others have experienced it only when they indicated to their partner that they wanted to leave.
Engle’s film is a poignant reminder that domestic abuse is non discriminatory.
With seven women dying every month by the hands of their male partner or ex partner, this is an issue that needs addressing, because as Engle’s film indicates “abuse is everywhere.”
Words: Catherine McMaster