Award-winning filmmaker Lorna Lowe’s film Romeo, a documentary about a Cambridge man dedicated to rehabilitating male batterers, will premiere at the 17th Annual Roxbury International Film Festival Thursday evening.
It is the second social issue documentary the Charles Street resident has produced and the Festival has featured. In her first documentary Shelter, Lowe, who in the early 1970s was in the foster care system for nearly a year before being adopted, describes the after-effects of her own search and reunion with her biological family as an adult. That film premiered at the Boston International Festival for Women’s Cinema and was named Best Discovery by the Boston Society of Film Critics.
“Shelter was so riveting and Lowe is such a powerful storyteller that I have been waiting for her to jump into and finish her next project,” said Lisa Simmons, director of the Festival, the largest in New England dedicated to celebrating films by and about people of color.
Romeo follows domestic violence counselor Antonio Arrendel’s personal and professional challenge to rehabilitate batterers in Boston, according to Lowe. A facilitator at one of the country’s first batterer intervention agencies, he runs groups for men convicted of domestic violence assaults. “Antonio is frustrated,” she wrote. “For seven years, he has seen multiple men re-offend and retake his class. As an experiment, he sidesteps the standard professional edict against fraternization with clients to befriend two men, Scott and Cup, to test whether his personal sponsorship will curb their addiction.
Lowe came up with the idea of profiling Antonio soon after she completed Shelter. At the time, she was also a practicing trial lawyer in the Cambridge Juvenile Court handling child welfare cases where the state had intervened in a family because of allegations of abuse or neglect of a child or children.
“In one of my early cases, I was appointed to represent a father whose children were temporarily removed from his and his wife’s custody and placed in a foster home because the state alleged that the children witnessed domestic violence, considered neglect,” she said. “As a condition of the state recommending that custody be returned to the parents, they drew up a plan for him to attend a 40-week batterer’s program designed specifically for men to address the use of power and control in relationships.”
Intrigued, Lowe started observing the program’s group sessions and eventually went through facilitator training herself. One group she observed was run by Antonio. At first she decided to profile his boss in a documentary, but changed her mind one morning after running into Antonio on the street.
“The proverbial light bulb went off when I got back to my office later that same morning,” she said. “Antonio was the guy. I called him that afternoon, asked him if he was interested [in the documentary], and he came to my office that night. That 4-hour interview – the scene with him in a sweatshirt, sitting on an antique sofa against a blue wall – was shot in my office and eventually became the spine of the film.”
Lowe then started researching the topic and developing the film, which was shot from 2003-2010 mainly in Cambridge, Hyde Park, Roxbury and Dorchester. She said she just finished editing it last week.
She found the process challenging. “After working with some top editors, I realized that I needed to learn to edit myself because my creative process really demanded it,” she said. “There were times that I would cut a scene and have to sit with it for a while. At other times, I would put the film aside for months and just wait. To have the freedom to be able to do that, I had to learn how to paint my own painting.”
Another challenge was mainly in post-production. Because she was pregnant during the first year of production and couldn’t always be with Antonio, she gave him a camera. “This was the best thing I could have done,” she said. “Not only did it allow him to show us who he is from his perspective…but he ended up giving me some beautiful footage I wouldn’t otherwise have and which rounded him out like the rest of us, a multi-dimensional human being.”
She told the story in a way that would address what many people either working in the field or experiencing domestic violence themselves are clamoring for: answers. “Of course, Romeo doesn’t have all the answers, nor is it intended to, but since this is such a long-standing issue, I wanted to put something out there that could help us think about the social issue of domestic violence in a new way.”
Festival Director Simmons finds it inspiring to watch filmmakers create their stories and then rework them until they become what they are in their final stage. “Seeing Romeo from the beginning stages makes it all the more special to get the opportunity to screen the world premiere and see Lorna’s hard work come to fruition,” she said. “Filmmakers like Lorna are exactly who the festival was created for: filmmakers who tell stories from different perspectives and who create films that make us think, feel and explore new worlds.”
The world premiere of Romeo takes place on Thursday, June 18 at 6 pm at the Museum of Fine Arts. Tickets are $9 for MGFA members and $11 for nonmembers. For more information, go to http://www.mfa.org/programs/film/romeo