The War At Home

I’ve spent almost 3 decades making films on human rights and conflict, largely focused on violence against women. I’ve made documentaries on rape camps in Bosnia, and on the civilian (largely women) toll of small arms.

I’ve made films on so-called honour killings in Jordan and the West Bank. I’ve filmed in Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Iran... So many places where women suffer unimaginably from conflict and violence. I always thought of Canada and home as a safe haven. But that idea was shattered when I realized that for thousands of women in our own country, “home” is the place where most violence occurs.

“Home” for some women is a place of personalized terrorism. This past year has been full of news on this topic, from the Ray Rice elevator video, to Bill Cosby, to Jian Ghomeshi. Violence against women has become a dinner party topic, anecdotally it feels like an epidemic as more and more women speak out telling the personal stories they have long kept hidden. The numbers are staggering. Nine times the number of deaths as civil wars, globally.

One in three women have experienced violence in their lifetime. In Canada, in the same ten year period, three times more women were killed by their partners than all our troops killed in Afghanistan. Every six days, a Canadian woman dies this way. 

What is perhaps more shocking, in a country like ours, is that we have no National Strategy to prevent violence against women. Aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing at unimaginable rates. And women of every background and economic strata suffer alone, ashamed to speak out, terrified to leave.

When they do leave, the first 18 months are the most dangerous. Even if they have a place to go (many do not) they face stigma, and a justice system that often feels like re-abuse. They live through all this in fear and anger, knowing their partner is unlikely to serve time, or be held accountable.

Making a film on the subject is a challenge. Women are afraid to speak out, lawyers are afraid you will get sued. Courts issue publication bans, filming is not allowed in courtrooms. There are many layers of silence around this story. We were lucky to find a group of women whose courage in speaking out is astonishing. They let us into their lives and their battles. They did so because they want the message out there – loud and clear.

Domestic violence can happen to anyone, and it does.

Society is failing to keep them safe. In a “he-said, she-said” story that unfolds behind closed doors, “proof” is hard to come by. It is often not until a woman is killed that we acknowledge the violence, or the crippling fear they have been subjected to. We learned, making this documentary, that there are inescapable patterns of behavior behind this violence that if understood by authorities, could be used to stop it.

“Control” is a word all the women used, as their stories echoed each others. No matter the background, or economic strata, we witnessed similar patterns. We learned that the Justice system feels like re-abuse for many women, exposing them to intimidation and fear. Restraining orders often don’t keep them safe. Family and Criminal Courts have different mandates, and often seem to contradict rulings.

Police and Judges reflect society’s over-arching prejudice. Most often the perpetrators serve no time, and they re-abuse. In cases of domestic murder, sentences are shorter than for all other murders. The system, according to women survivors, is simply broken. We hope that by telling the stories of a handful of incredibly brave women, we will shed some light on this dark story, and start a conversation. It seems that our country, like everywhere, still has miles to go in finding a way to stop this violence, and the attitudes that fuel it.

Not all men who have grown up in violence perpetuate it. It is a choice. It should be considered for what it is: unacceptable.

Violent men should be held accountable,

and our women should be protected and kept safe. Like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) we believe its time to end the silence, and promote zero tolerance. Home should be a safe place, for all of us.

Shelley Saywell

Lowdown Tracks - UPDATES!



We are so excited to support the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness 20,000 Homes Campaign. CAEH sees homelessness as a problem that can be solved and so do we. Our film Lowdown Tracks will screen at the CAEH conference to launch their campaign on November 3 in Montreal and we will be there! We will partner with the organization to hold grassroots and community screenings wherever they want to promote this campaign.




Please join us in person at the Regent Park Film Festival Screening Saturday November 21 at 12 noon. Daniel Spectrum at 585 Dundas Street East. Hear some great music and meet the stars of the film!

Lowdown Tracks World Premiere

We are very excited to announce our new feature documentary Lowdown Tracks is having its world premiere at Hot Docs International Festival April 25, 2015. This has been a long journey coming….

Lowdown Tracks is a documentary that celebrates music, survival and those living on the outside. PLAY trailer here.

We started conceiving this film eight years ago. It all started when I went to a benefit concert that my friend Lorraine Segato (Parachute Club) was putting on for the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. Lorraine did something amazing that night – Parachute Club was the house band but the headliners were homeless musicians, street poets, and dancers whom she’d discovered with the help of organizations like SKETCH in Toronto. It was a magical night, and I kept wondering about the stories behind the songs. Who were these talented people, and how did they end up on the street?

A few years later I was part of the inaugural CFC-NFB Feature Documentary Lab, and Lorraine’s concert was part of an idea I was developing. I realized it should be a separate film, and began to raise money for it. It started off as an attempt to replicate the original concert, but widen to film the search for the musicians. Lorraine and Deb Parks and I spent hours sitting around trying to figure out how to do this, because you really can’t go back. But we also knew there was an idea there – a way to reframe the way we see homeless people through music.



As we started to look for people to film, we realized that the “concerts” were already happening – right out on the street. We found some incredible people, whose stories were so complex and compelling, that their music became part of the story telling. It was all about recording them properly. We’d go out with our sound recordist who’d use up to seven microphones, hidden in leaves or garbage bins…all to get the real feel, but do the music justice. We filmed and recorded where they busked, where they lived, or at places that were meaningful to their stories in some way. The field recordings would be used in constructing the film.

I’d been reading a book about Allan Lomax, who had done field recordings across America with his father John, during the Great Depression. Those recordings are now iconic – Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie among them – but what fascinated me were the stories of the washerwomen, the unknown rhythms of the poor and the dispossessed. Those recordings came to symbolize the era, and so many of the stories we were hearing had the same feeling. Even the imagery, dogs and boxcars, tracks and bridges, shelter rooms, along with the re-emergence of folk, hobo music echoed those times. Allan Lomax’s archive was a huge inspiration as we kept struggling with how to tell these stories.





But of course 2015 is not the Great Depression, when one out of four people were out of work and migrant camps were overflowing. In those days everyone shared the pain, but today it seems that people on the “outside” are pushed into the shadows. Out of rhythm, out of luck, or out of support, they fall in the cracks and as we heard over and over again, they feel shut out and voiceless. Lowdown Tracks is all about hearing those voices, and if you love music like I do, its about the power of song as narrative and the power of music to heal. It’s a view from the ground – a soundtrack of the lowdown, from those who tell it like it is.





WE have loved working on this project, every day we filmed, recorded, or spent in the edit room was a good day for us. Once the film is finished (its literally being finished now).

I’ll write more about the people in the film.


Streetnurse Cathy Crowe still fights for social justice

Cathy Crowe began writing about her work as a street nurse in Toronto years ago, and I was always touched by her stories about a city we all lived in, but rarely saw. Her work with the homeless inspired me to take on her story in Streetnurse which has become a kind of manifesto and teaching aid for nursing schools, all in one.

Today, after the tragic loss of NDP leader Jack Layton, who’s book on the homeless inspired us to action, its great to see Cathy turning to politics and running for the NDP. This is from her Facebook page:

"To show support for Cathy and standing up for Healthcare we are planning a Nursing and nursing student canvass this Saturday September 17th at 12 noon. We will be gathering at 219 Queen Street East (Campaign office, street parking available). Lunch/Refreshments and BRIEFING, with special guest, Dr. Dennis Raphael Please pass this on to anyone that may be interested. All are welcome!"

Let’s take health issues to the streets!!!!

WIFT Crystal Awards Gala Toronto 2010

WIFT-T’s annual Crystal Awards recognize exceptional Canadian women working in screen-based media and are the only awards in this country dedicated to women’s screen-based achievements.

Shelley Saywell receives the Creative Excellence Award 2010.