Documentary: Lani's Story
Tuesday 25 May
8.30pm on SBS ONE
"Before I even knew it, he was dragging me inside. All I can really remember, in my head, was 'oh my God, if I go inside this house, he's going to kill me'." - Lani Brennan
On Christmas Day, 2000, inside her home in Sydney's south-west, Lani Brennan was raped, beaten with a hammer and almost choked to death by her partner. And while domestic violence in Australia sadly isn't rare, Lani's story is because she fought back.
Lani's Story, (May 25, 8.30pm on SBS ONE) is Brennan's account of her violent relationship, her long and courageous fight for justice, and the greater ramifications of the guilty verdict.
It's also a wonderful love story as it was John, her new partner, who gave Lani the strength to be that rarity: an Aboriginal woman laying charges against one of her own. Written and directed by Indigenous first-time filmmaker Genevieve Grieves and produced by Blackfella Films (First Australians), Lani's Story is an example of Australia's Indigenous community telling their own story, however difficult and taboo.
It doesn't gloss over the details - Lani speaks honestly about her alcohol and drug abuse. It seeks to explain why battered women so often suffer in silence. As Lani says: "I didn't even want to talk about it; just wanna block it out of my head. And, most of the time, he was always right next to me."
And it also tackles the specific Indigenous issue of 'don't trust the cops'. As Carol Simon, family friend and another domestic violence survivor, says: "It's something that's sort of instilled in you…It's accepted. It's what goes on. It's what you put up with… you don't involve outsiders, you certainly don't involve the police."
However, it's the brutality of the Christmas Day attack that prompts Lani's father to take her to the police. Four years later, as Lani testifies in court, her family is still devastated to hear the terrible details:
"While he was hitting me with a hammer he was tying an electric cord around my throat…I could hardly breathe and he was raping me at the same time…and I thought this is it, I'm going now."
While ultimately an uplifting tale, Lani's Story chronicles the hardships that follow:
It took three years for her ex-partner to be arrested, something Lani can't understand. Had she been white, she claims, he would have been arrested the moment she pressed charges.
Despite being composed and articulate on the stand, Lani was portrayed in court as aggressive, argumentative, and a woman bent on revenge.
She felt intimidated and terrified by her ex-partner's presence in the courtroom.
And she was even pregnant during the trial, giving birth by caesarean and getting back into the witness box two days later.
Her ex was sentenced to 33 years, allowing Lani to move on with her life, yet what's remarkable is how well she's moved on. Despite her trauma Lani is a wonderful mother, a loving wife, a functioning human being.
"Sometimes I feel like I am damaged goods," she says. "I know me past isn't easy to get past - something little will trigger it off again - [but] I know I'm worthwhile, I know I deserve to walk around today with my head held high."
The guilty verdict has also been deeply felt by Carol, who now finds the courage to speak up against domestic violence.
"Listening to her talk at the trial…just made me stronger," she tells the doco. "Things have been happening in domestic violence, and I now act openly. If it means retaliation [from her community], then that's what'll happen. I can face up to it."
Lani hopes that her story will help others in community face up to their realities.