The Documentary as a Weapon : Movies: 'Defending Our Lives' won an Oscar for a trio of activists who wanted to 'do something' for battered families.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They had been warned. No lengthy acceptance speeches. No polemics. And no more than two people on the podium.

But Margaret Lazarus, Renner Wunderlich and Stacey Kabat were unfazed. As veteran laborers in the vineyards of social justice, they had faced far tougher obstacles than the Hollywood Establishment.

When the Oscar winner in the short documentary category was announced, all three co-producers raced to the stage. Filmmakers Lazarus and Wunderlich were quick to express gratitude and to acknowledge the women whose stories are recorded in "Defending Our Lives." Then Kabat, their 30-year-old activist colleague, seized her moment.

"Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the United States," Kabat called out, her voice near the breaking point. "Please, we need all your help to stop this."

After the ceremony, still giddy from victory--and maybe also from jet lag--Kabat freeze-framed the scene on her VCR and explained how she got up the nerve to ignore the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"Hey, you got 1 billion people for 10 seconds," Kabat said. "You better say something important."

The urge, once again, to say something important is what impelled Lazarus, Wunderlich and Kabat to join forces to produce a documentary about what Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala has called "terrorism in the home."

Partners in life and in work for nigh on 25 years, Lazarus and Wunderlich had earlier used the short documentary as a vehicle to address such topics as rape, women's health, gays and lesbians in the Holocaust, images of women in advertising, the alcohol beverage industry and nuclear war. Domestic violence, Wunderlich said, was yet another affront to human dignity that cried out to be examined on film.

"One thing that just got more and more obvious to me was that this is a human-rights issue of huge proportions," he said. "It's just massive, it's international and it's institutionally sanctioned. If anything else was happening on this level, we'd have the troops out."

Instead, Wunderlich and Lazarus pulled out their cameras, their notebooks, their editing equipment and the idealism that has guided them since they met at a screening of a Fellini movie. Wunderlich was a 20-ish Boston University student and ex-Alaska fisherman. Lazarus, a year his junior, was also studying at BU. As their simple goal in life, they decided to change the world.

"You know how naive you are when you're 20," Lazarus said. "You think, boy, if you just show people the injustice, everything will be different."

They incorporated as Cambridge Documentary Films and kept their overhead low by doing their own distribution as well as production. They also lived cheaply in a third-floor walk-up in Cambridge, and for 17 years, said Wunderlich, "we just kept cranking out films" instead of having children.

But even after their two sons came along, driving them to a real house with a real yard in a real suburb, Wunderlich and Lazarus continued to confine their work to short documentaries.

"People's time is extremely valuable," Lazarus said. "Time is important, and you owe it to your audience to keep your story short. If it's really good, people will pay attention--but it's got to be really good."

When Lazarus and Kabat met at a political demonstration just about four years ago, it was as if some kind of chemical connection had taken place. Their philosophical wires crossed, and by the time Wunderlich joined them for dinner that night, they were vowing to hold a "really big demonstration," as Kabat recalled, by making a film about domestic violence.

Kabat, who in 1992 won a Reebok Human Rights Award for her work against domestic violence, describes herself as the daughter and granddaughter of women who were beaten by their husbands. But when she headed off to Bates College at age 18, "it wasn't acceptable" to talk about such things, not even the nightmares that plagued her about killing the father who told her, "Well, Stacey, people just have violent tempers, that's all."

Kabat plunged herself into the study of nonviolence, her own desperate attempt to "transform my own experience so I didn't become violent myself." She sought guidance from a South African political exile, her spiritual godfather of sorts, and worked for a time with refugees in Gaza.

Returning to work in a battered women's shelter here seven years ago, Kabat was convinced that her clients were not all that different.

"I said, wait a minute, women and children are living in the United States like domestic refugees," Kabat said. "They have to flee their homes, often in the night. They leave everything behind and then they have to hide."

Kabat shook her head, a gesture of amazement and despair. "And nobody talks about it."

Kabat's rabble-rousing as a substance abuse and domestic violence counselor at Framingham State Prison here eventually got her barred from the facility--but not before she fulfilled her agenda of "finding every single woman in that institution who had defended her life, because I knew it could have been me in there, not them."

Those stories form the core of the sobering film that won this year's best documentary short Academy Award. Three of the so-called Framingham Eight prisoners who are featured have won commutation of their sentences, proof in Kabat's view that a clemency movement for prisoners claiming the battered women's defense is gaining force.

"This film blows a hole in the prison wall and says to everyone, 'Here it is, here's what's happening,' " Kabat said. "It makes people realize that women are dying and that this is a community issue. It is affecting our families."

Oscar, as Wunderlich, Lazarus and Kabat fondly refer to the pair of statuettes they brought home from Hollywood, has helped cast "a golden glow" on the subject, Kabat contends. Suddenly, Washington is listening, Kabat said; policy makers are telephoning her, not the other way around.

But always they come back to the faces and the bruises and the howling desperation in "Defending Our Lives."

"It's just so huge," Wunderlich said. "And one little film just scratches the surface."

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