THE FIRE THAT TOOK HER – Review by Liz Braun

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After Judy Malinowski was set on fire by her boyfriend, a detective in Ohio went to try to interview her in hospital to find out exactly what happened.

He worried that the badly burned woman wouldn’t be able to understand him or even to hear his questions — as he said, “She has no ears.”

Malinowski’s burns were so severe that it was expected she would die within a few hours of having been burned. Instead, she lived for almost two years, long enough to testify at her own murder trial.

The Fire That Took Her is a documentary about domestic violence and the law, and specifically how the laws of Ohio were changed because of what happened to Judy Malinowski.

This is a terrible story involving ghastly images but director Patricia E. Gillespie presents it without ever pulling her visual punches or letting the camera shy away from what happened to Malinowski. Her steadfast approach ensures that what could easily have been maudlin or lugubrious is heroic, an apt presentation of her subject. The film is an homage to one woman’s strength.

The Fire That Took Her begins with a call to 911 from an eyewitness screaming in hysteria and disbelief at what she has seen— a woman doused in gasoline and set on fire.

Michael Slager, Malinowski’s ex-boyfriend, initially tried to say the incident was just a terrible accident, but surveillance footage from a nearby bank machine tells a different tale.

Malinowski’s story unfolds through interviews with her mother, Bonnie Bowes, her sister Danielle Gorman and brother Patrick Gorman and her own two young daughters; the detectives and the lawyers involved in the criminal case also play a big part.

So do old home movies and photos. Malinowski was only 31 when her boyfriend tried to kill her, and there are pictures of her from childhood onward showing her energy and vibrant beauty.

After being in a coma for several months, Malinowski regained consciousness against all the odds and the criminal proceedings against Michael Slager took a different turn.

As Warren Edwards, the Franklin County prosecutor says on camera, the case was well suited to the death penalty; people were pretty much waiting around for Malinowski to die so that could be pursued.

But she didn’t die, and in the trial that followed, Michael Slager was convicted on assault and arson charges and sent to prison for only 11 years. The film makes Malinowski’s pain and suffering very evident, so Slager’s sentence adds insult to grievous injury.

Malinowski was willing to testify against him via video, and knowing that, he pleaded no contest to the charges.

“He silenced her again,” says Malinowski’s mother, who has already outlined the abusive relationship and how Slager manipulated her daughter and everyone else in the family.

Malinowski refused to be silenced, however, and against the certain knowledge that she would eventually die of her injuries, she agreed to give a deposition on video that would be used later, after her death — at Slager’s murder trial.

The Ohio District Attorney, according to the film, risked his own reputation to fight for the right to set this precedent. Judy was questioned and cross-examined in her hospital bed.

Slager’s lawyer knew no jury would be unmoved by her testimony, and in the end, Slager pleaded guilty in exchange for life imprisonment instead of the death penalty.

In September 2017, Judy’s Law went into effect, netting additional prison time for offenders who disfigure victims deliberately.

Mid-way through The Fire That Took Her comes the information that Malinowski had been an addict. After cancer surgery she became addicted to the Oxycontin doctors prescribed for pain, and later, when her insurance had run out, she turned to heroin. There’s a whole other movie in that bit of info, but never mind.

As it is, the film is an indictment of the laws around domestic violence and the woefully inadequate protections for women.

Slowly and surely, the filmmaker rolls out Malinowski’s predicament and how her many pleas for help from law enforcement fell on deaf ears.

“He’s going to kill me,” she said, more than once.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month. Devastating though some of the images in it may be, The Fire That Took Her should really be shown in schools.

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Liz Braun

Liz Braun is a film critic for the Sun Media newspaper chain in Canada.