On 4 March 2013, Chantelle Barnsdale-Quean, a 35-year-old mother of two, was killed by her husband of 10 years at their home in Darfield, Barnsley. Stephen Barnsdale-Quean strangled his wife, whose Facebook messages he liked to check and whose debit card he preferred to keep in his own wallet, with a length of metal chain he had bought two weeks before from B&Q. Why did he commit this terrible crime? No one knows. After he had killed Chantelle, he stabbed his face, neck and stomach with a paring knife, the better to claim that she had attacked him; he then suggested to the police that she had committed suicide. “We’re assuming it was about money,” says Chantelle’s mother, Sue. But her voice carries no conviction, for what can anyone say about a man who would do such a thing? Where there should be words, there is only blankness. Where there should be an explanation, some glimpsed understanding, there is only this unspeakable void, as if she had been scoured inside.
Sue and her husband, Stuart, appear in Love You to Death, a film by Vanessa Engle, the subject of which is domestic violence. As well as telling their own story, the couple read out several names from the long list of women – 86 in total – who were killed in Britain by a male partner or ex-partner in 2013. Sue can also be heard at the documentary’s very beginning, claiming Chantelle as her own in the piteous roll call of relationships with which it opens. “She was my auntie,” says the first voice. “She was one of my best friends from school,” says the second. Daughter, neighbour, little sister: every kind of bond is offered up until, with terrible finality, someone says: “She was my mum.” This hour-long accretion not only of names, but of relationships, pushes the viewer to see past the statistics, the miserably stubborn figures in the matter of such killings, which change hardly at all year-to-year. The film is a memorial to the dead, but it’s also a powerful reminder that those who are left behind must somehow live with the knowledge that their son-in-law, their sister’s boyfriend, their father killed someone they loved very much, and that they were able to do nothing to stop him.
Engle, an acclaimed documentary maker whose films (Lefties, Jews, Women and, more recently, Walking with Dogs and Inside Harley Street) are notable for her frank manner when it comes to asking difficult questions, had known about the extent of domestic violence in Britain – on average, two women are killed in England and Wales every week by a current or former male partner – “since for ever”. In her teens, she often went on marches organised by Women Against Violence Against Women. “But however interested you are in an issue, until you have a shape, it’s not an idea,” she says. “It was only when I thought of doing [a documentary about] a whole year of deaths – a unity of time – that I realised I had a film. It was an idea that I borrowed from Morgan Matthews’s The Fallen, [a 2008 film remembering every serviceman and woman who had been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq], and I owe him a great debt.” She would focus, then, on half a dozen or so individual stories, but she would also make sure that every woman who was murdered in the course of 2013 would also be named at some point. The question was: who would read this list?
“When my commissioning editor at the BBC asked if there wasn’t an authority figure in the world of domestic violence who could do it, I felt uneasy. I didn’t want to give ownership of the issue to one individual. But as I looked for a solution, it was suddenly obvious: those who agreed to appear in the film would take turns doing it. And then I realised that I didn’t want the viewer only to hear a lot of names and ages. That was too uninflected; they might as well have been breast cancer victims, or people killed cycling. I wanted a brief description of what had happened, and to know how long the couple had been together.”
This decision taken, the hard work began. Eighty-six families had to be contacted. “In the end, 13 were willing to talk to us, three of which later withdrew on the grounds that they would not be able to do it again on camera. For some people, talking to us initially, off camera, had triggered their memories and they simply couldn’t go through it another time. They were too traumatised.” In the final cut, seven families appear, each describing their own unfathomable loss. Watch it, and their stories will be forever burned on your mind.
At the age of 80, Chloe Siokos had her throat slit by her ex-husband of 40 years, after which he doused her body with olive oil and petrol and set fire to her flat. Joanna Hall, 35, was stabbed 40 times at her home in Tenby by her boyfriend of three weeks, a man who refused to call an ambulance for five hours. When she arrived at hospital – she died some days later – her injuries were so bad, doctors believed they would have to amputate her arms. Kirsty Humphrey, from Colchester, was stabbed to death aged 23, after which her boyfriend of nine months simply changed his trousers, put the washing on, and left the house. Her five-year-old daughter, Brooke, who had seen and heard everything – “get up you whore,” he shouted at one point – sat with her body all night. Amina Bibi, 43, was stabbed more than 70 times at home in Forest Gate, east London, by a crack addict her husband of 13 years had paid to do the job. Anne-Marie Birch, 47, was strangled by her estranged husband of 25 years in a field near Broadstairs; afterwards, he returned the dogs she had been walking to their owners, cleaned himself up in an Asda lavatory, and then drank two pints at the bar of a pub before calmly telephoning the police to let them know what he had done. Assia Newton, 44, was strangled with a dog lead at home in Pencoed, Wales, by her husband of 20 years, a man so controlling he had installed an app on her mobile that enabled him to hear the name of everyone who called her.
The interviews Engle has gathered are remarkable, even by her standards. It has long been her belief that straight questions will be rewarded with straight answers, and so it proves here. The narratives she elicits are at once quotidian (“You were walking on egg shells… you never knew what mood he’d be in”) and horrifying (“Oh, will you just fucking die,” said Joanna Hall’s killer, as she lay on the floor beside him, gasping for breath). And then there is her attention to the aftermath: rather than let people try, and fail, to describe the endless magnitude of it, she has the pictures. She is there when Assia Newton’s husband, Kelvin, telephones his daughter Sophia from prison – thanks to her continuing relationship with her father, Sophia’s sisters, Sameera and Charmaine, no longer to speak to her – and she is there, too, when Sue takes Chantelle Barnsdale-Quean’s small daughters, Abigail and Isobel, to visit their mother’s grave. On the cemetery paths, heartbreakingly, they turn cartwheels.
“I don’t want to say that those girls are resilient,” says Engle. “But in the film, they represent resilience.” From the outset, Sue and Stuart were clear that they were happy for her to talk to the children, who live with them now, and once the BBC and the girls’ counsellors had given her the go-ahead, this is what she did. “Protecting them was paramount, but the other side of that is to give them a voice. I filmed them, and I chatted to them, but it wasn’t an interview. That would have been out of the question.” In their bedroom, where they are colouring in – they favour pink and purple, their mother’s favourite colours – they describe how much they miss Chantelle. What about their father? (Convicted of his wife’s murder, he is serving a minimum prison sentence of 18 years.) “I don’t miss him that much,” says Abigail, uncertainly. “I hate him,” says Isobel, more fiercely. Their grandparents told them only that “daddy had killed mummy”. It was left to a neighbour’s child to reveal how precisely he had done this.