“Lake of Fire” begins with a shot of an anti-abortion billboard brandishing the words “Enjoy Life.” No issue is so divisive in the United States as a woman’s right to an abortion, and the idea of “life” – in terms of an embryo or fetus’ status as a developed being, and in terms of the country’s political and ethical make-up – is at the heart of it. “Lake of Fire,” Tony Kaye‘s personally financed documentary seventeen years in the making, forces one to face the most troubling aspects of the abortion debate in all its moral ambiguity and ideological fervor. Not without flaws and omissions, Kaye’s project is nonetheless entirely courageous, the work of a man sincerely anguished by America’s bitter conflict between generally religious pro-life proponents and secular pro-choice supporters, and sincerely committed to finding common ground on which to start a more constructive conversation about abortion.
Kaye, the British commercial director best known for 1998’s skinhead saga “American History X,” is hardly squeamish about confronting the psychology and behavior of extremists, and his main focus of “Lake of Fire” is the religious coalition comprised largely of Catholics and evangelical Protestants that has been slowly but successfully opposing the Roe v. Wade ruling since almost immediately after it was delivered. The phrase “lake of fire” is a biblical one describing the torments of hell, and its violence aptly expresses the single-minded zealotry of some of the religious, pro-life right. Kaye is there to cover the trial of Mike Griffin, a member of the extreme right organization Army of God, who killed an abortion doctor and sparked a wave of similar shootings across the country in the mid-Nineties. What makes such people do what they do? One interviewee offers the notion that pro-lifers unconsciously project the death of their inner lives at the hands of dogma onto the unborn child they so desperately wish to save. But prescribing such motivations does nothing to explain the change of heart of Jane Roe herself, Norma McCorvey, who is now a pro-life spokeswoman. The only thing that is clear is that the uncompromising faction has been chipping away at Roe v. Wade through an organized, two-pronged campaign of righteous appeal and violent intimidation.
“Lake of Fire” wants to bring the issue back to a realistic realm from an absolutist one, and investigations of the pro-life movement are countered by interviews with pro-choice intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, and pro-lifer Nat Hentoff. Kaye’s style is a sort of lyric realism, overaestheticizing gritty black-and-white images with drippy shallow focus and bombastic music, but even his frequent indulgences can’t take away from his subjects’ espousals of the issue’s profound ethical complexity – Dershowitz offers an analogy of the rabbi who tells a divorcing couple they are both right and then tells a student who complains they can’t both be right that he, too, is right.
Though a history of abortion in America is sorely missed in “Lake of Fire,” the film’s graphic but not sensationalist images of aborted fetuses and back-alley abortion victims, as well as some stirring testimonies, impart the powerful emotional and philosophical feelings on both sides of the issue. Capping Kaye’s cinematic dialogue is a scene of a young woman, coming off a series of traumatic personal experiences, who has an abortion so as not to be burdened by maternity at the outset of her newfound independence. After the procedure she breaks down in front of the camera. Several of Kaye’s subjects genuinely believe that the legal status of abortion has led to a loss of respect for life, but by revealing the human face of those who go through with an abortion he’s proved that nothing could be further from the truth.
[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]