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The faces of dating violence

When you think of the hazards facing today's teens, what comes to mind?

Drugs? Gang violence? Pregnancy? AIDS?

Urged on by big-name actors-turned-producers Edward James Olmos and Lorraine Bracco, two documentary filmmakers decided to turn their cameras toward a teen problem that's less talked about, perhaps, but no less insidious:

Dating violence.

According to one study, more than one-third of American teens have experienced violence in their romantic lives: everything from a slap during an argument to a serious beating after a night of partying.

And while the nation turns its resources toward flashier, seemingly graver youth concerns, more young men and women come of age learning that the way to control a relationship is by physically assaulting their partners.

"It's deeper than racism . . . some primal thing," says Susan Montez, a social worker who serves as director of FACES, a therapy/social group sponsored by a medical center in Brooklyn that provides theatrical outlets for troubled kids ages 14 to 21.

"My son was raised by me and I see it in him, sometimes," adds Montez, who works with the youths in FACES to create a dramatic program based on their experiences for performances at area schools. "It's just a part of the culture these kids are living in now."

Montez's program proved a perfect subject for filmmakers Andy Young and Susan Todd, award-winning documentarians faced with the daunting task of getting images of acts usually hidden behind closed doors.

Young and Todd urged Montez to draft a special group of 14 youths from FACES _ most with significant experience in the subject _ to create a dramatic program on dating violence that the group could then perform at area schools.

While the group shared their tales and hammered them into workable drama, the filmmakers' cameras would capture the process, watching as these young people explored the depths of their actions and found new ways to express themselves.

At least, that was the plan.

"We want to help young people voice what's going on inside them, so they don't have to act it out," says Montez, acknowledging that the group had avoided tackling the subjects of sex and violence before because that tended to polarize the sexes. "It's better to have that drama onstage, rather than in your life, where it could get you arrested, hurt or killed."

This kind of drama forms the backbone of Young and Todd's It Ain't Love, filmed in early 1996.

Time and again, these youths expose their emotional innards for Young and Todd's cameras, relating tales of conflict so powerful, many of them become lost in the moment even as they are re-creating it onstage.

We see Eric Scott, a handsome, outgoing wannabe rapper, re-enact a scene in which his girlfriend tries to get him to go for a walk after work. Tired and irritable, he refuses. They fight. And for a brief moment onstage, Scott seems to forget he's acting and rears back to strike the girl playing the mother of his son.

"You do not want me to go with this," he tells Montez in a shaky voice, after stopping the scene just short of hitting his dramatic partner. "The old me . . . would have decked the s_- out of her."

No less powerful are the stories offered by Aisha Scott, eventually trailed by Young and Todd as she relates the same tales on Oprah Winfrey's nationally syndicated talk show.

Walking through her old neighborhood, Scott (no relation to Eric) describes dating an abusive man who threw her down a flight of stairs, pulled a gun on her, choked her and once threatened to throw her off the roof of a building.

Standing next to the ledge from which he would have tossed her down several stories to a likely death, Scott admits still loving him.

As the documentary unfolds, the sexual rift Montez feared would divide the group emerges, with the men alternating between admitting their guilt and spreading blame to others _ wondering, for example, if women who strike men or refuse to let them leave an argument don't somehow bring violence on themselves.

The women struggle with their own notions of femininity, bravely protesting that they don't need a man to feel whole while admitting they have remained involved with lovers who beat them because they didn't feel strong enough to leave.

All this becomes rich fodder for the cameras, which document this unlikely group of inner-city youths struggling to reconcile a lifetime of harmful attitudes with the painful knowledge that those reflexes must change.

It's an approach long on drama but short on solutions. The men, for example, are told only once that striking a woman under any circumstances is wrong, and the techniques the youths use to back away from their violent feelings are shown only in passing.

A New York Times Magazine cover story on the making of It Ain't Love suggests that the filmmakers may have exploited their young subjects, pushing the kids to bare themselves emotionally without preparing them for the consequences of admitting to such extreme acts on film.

The New York Times story centers on Brian Treglio, a then-24-year-old FACES member who eventually re-enacts a scene on-camera in which he broke the nose of his one-time girlfriend, fellow FACES actor Irene Torres.

Treglio doesn't appear in the documentary much because, according to reporter Ted Conover, he felt so uncomfortable with unearthing and dramatizing these abuse stories. Eventually, Montez and the other FACES participants talked him into acting out the scene.

Conover's story maintains that the filmmakers, hoping to make the young man the focus of their film, pressured Montez to secure Treglio's cooperation. Later, the story describes Treglio as the only FACES member visibly angered by his portrayal.

"Every woman in America is going to want my head," Conover quotes Treglio as saying after the screening. "I said several times during the film that she mentally abused me, but that didn't come across. It just made her (Torres) look like a saint."

Still, because Treglio isn't seen much, he doesn't seem to be portrayed any better or worse than other FACES men who admit past acts of abuse.

And Montez says she's a little surprised that Conover wrote so much about a participant who appears in about 10 minutes of a 75-minute film.

"Had it been appropriate for me to reply, I would have said, "Dear Ted, we had a great movie _ wish you were there,' " she says.

"It felt like, reading that story, that he was reviewing something from the Bizarro World," Montez adds. "If anything was said that could have been taken the wrong way, that's the way he wrote it. The only person we feel betrayed by is him."

Still, as Olmos and Bracco have told her, any publicity can be good publicity. So Montez is working with the Justice Department to get funding for a tour that would bring FACES kids to schools across the country, screening It Ain't Love for students and acting out scenes to dramatize the issues raised.

And Treglio? Montez says he still works as a FACES staff member, squeezing in the occasional TV interview with work booking the group's school tours.

"One young man started crying during a rehearsal . . . turns out he'd pushed his girlfriend down," Montez says. "Brian gave the kid his beeper number and told him to call if he had those feelings again. This was a kid who couldn't look you in the eye when he came here six years ago. That's progress."

AT A GLANCE: A documentary on violence in teen dating relationships, It Ain't Love, airs at 8 tonight on Cinemax. Grade: A. Rating: TV-14.