Emma Murphy Fights Back review: 'Angry, empathetic, moving, at times gruelling and other times inspirational'
The more we see the awful issue of domestic violence covered and exposed on TV, the better it is for women (and indeed our whole society). The only potential pitfall is a danger of viewers becoming desensitised or apathetic – “compassion fatigue”, they call it.
Well, there was no fear of indifference or cold-heartedness while watching Emma Murphy Fights Back, which aired tonight on RTÉ2. This hour-long documentary was angry, empathetic, moving, at times gruelling and at other times inspirational.
It was also extremely well-made, which is perhaps a surprise as the eponymous Emma is a newcomer to filmmaking. She made headlines in 2015 after posting a video of injuries her violent boyfriend had given her.
He’s since been convicted of assault; Emma’s honesty and fearlessness made her a figure of hope for other victims of domestic violence. We saw, popping up on screen, some of the many messages of thanks and support she’s received.
She has now spent the last two years making Emma Murphy Fights Back. The time and effort and work put in by the production team were obvious: I can’t remember seeing such an admirably comprehensive examination of the subject before.
While Ireland is, statistically, a relatively safe country – at least compared to many others – violence against women is a serious problem. This often starts very young, too, as the results of a survey told us: sometimes in adolescence.
A resolute and likeable young woman, Murphy tackled it in three main ways: by retelling her own story, talking to other women about their experiences with abusers, and finally, exploring what help is out there for victims and what makes these men act like they do.
The testimonies of several abused women were heartrending and, in some cases, hair-raising. One woman, Amy, spoke of how her boyfriend wielded a baseball bat across her so violently that it actually broke.
Shockingly, this thug only received four years in prison. That’s another aspect, and another massive problem, which Emma looked at: as human rights lawyer Simone George pointed out, there are laws protecting women – but sentencing is hugely inconsistent.
Along the way Murphy also visited shelters for battered women, spoke at the Safe Ireland summit, which aims to make this the safest country in the world for women, and visited family members of victims.
Her conversation with Maria Dempsey – mother of Alicia Hough, who was murdered along with another woman and her two small children in an insane rampage seven years ago – was almost physically painful to watch. Maria’s anguish at losing her girl seemed as fresh as the day it happened, and Murphy broke into tears during her story.
She also spent time with two men who are helping to try and end this scourge. First, Don Hennessy of the Cork Domestic Violence Project which works with both victims and attackers.
He explained how domestic abusers are similar to paedophiles in their methodology and psychology. They identify their target – usually someone sweet-natured – then break down their barriers, self-belief and even sense of who they are. Once that’s achieved, they’re more likely to put up with appalling treatment.
Meanwhile John Russell, co-ordinator of the Move programme (also in Cork), works on making these men face up to their actions and take responsibility. It’s too easy to label them as “evil”, he argued; that seems to make this something beyond their control. Everyone chooses their behaviour – and they can choose different.
Can they be reformed? Emma was sceptical, certainly for repeat offenders. Russell, and people like him, remains hopeful.
Maybe it’s an essential flaw in some individuals, though; something blood-deep and, ultimately, ineradicable. To quote a line from the Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan, maybe it’s simply the case that, for some, “The woman’s beauty excites the man’s hatred.”