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Sundance Interview: Lana Wilson and Martha Shane – Directors of After Tiller

Sundance Interview: Lana Wilson and Martha Shane – Directors of After Tiller

One of the highlights of Sundance was seeing the documentary After Tiller directed by Martha Shana and Lana Wilson.  Here’s our conversation right after they won a $5,000 grant from Women in Film.

Women and Hollywood: Based on your experiences making this film and having not been activists on this issue, where do you think the abortion movement is now?

Martha Shane: That’s a really good question.  It’s the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and there has been a lot of sort of doom and gloom about how we haven’t made any progress.  But I do think there are so many pro-choice people in this country. The majority of this country is pro-choice and I think we’re ready to sort of move this conversation in a new direction.  Our film is looking at the gray area and the complexities of this issue and showing that these doctors aren’t political zealots, but they are actually doctors who are unbelievably dedicated and willing to risk everything to care for women who are in the most desperate situations. I think the movement’s ready for a conversation that embraces the complexities and the experiences of individual women who are going through this.

Lana Wilson: We’re 29, so by the time we were born abortion, contraception, equality, the right to vote, were all legal.  So I think we have a very different experience. A lot of people our age when someone gets an abortion, they think why didn’t she use contraception. Contraception’s available. It’s legal. What happened there? And I think that our film will hopefully show how complicated these circumstances are. There’s a disconnect there just because abortion and contraception is legal they might not beeducated about it or have access to it. I really think that’s the direction that the movement’s going to go in.  For example think of that 16-year-old girl at the end of our film, that’s one of the most complicated cases. A lot of people argue about that after seeing the movie and it’s so interesting to look at in the bigger picture of the movement and where it’s going. Think of the 16-year-old girl, is it possible that she didn’t have a comprehensive sex education, is it possible she doesn’t have access to contraception, is it possible she didn’t have as responsible adult in her life who she felt comfortable talking to?  How did she get to this point, and how can we change that. That is what we have to look at.

WaH:  So you had the idea for the movie, right?

MS: No. Lana had the idea.

WaH: Lana, tell us where the idea came from.

LW: The idea came from watching the news coverage of Dr. Tiller’s death and similar to what Martha talked about earlier, this fatigue of how this issue is covered in the media. It’s black and white. It’s people screaming at each other. It’s all these abstract ideas, like when does life begin. Who cares when life begins?  It’s doesn’t have anything to do with the woman who’s at the center of this or the doctors. It’s not theoretical, intellectual arguments, so I was being frustrated the way it was covered. With Dr. Tiller’s death, they would just say, he’s a controversial abortion doctor. They’d get the talking points from the two sides and that was it.

I was just so curious. Who is this guy? Who would do a job where you go into work the day after you’re shot in both arms? It was just unbelievable to me. It made me so curious about who would do this, who would be okay with being vilified by so much of the country but driven enough to keep going to work.  I had no idea at the time why a woman would need a late abortion so I was curious about that too. And also about who was left now that this man was assassinated. Are there other doctors in the wings to take his place? Would people be scared out of doing this, was anyone going to step forward now that he was gone? I just thought it would be so interesting to get away from those shouting two-sided polemical debate and be a fly on the wall in the lives of the doctors at the center of this. What is it like to be them? How does it affect their personal life? How do they deal with these pressures and threats all the time?

WaH: And how did you two start to work together?

MS: We studied film together at Wesleyan University and I’ve been working in documentary for a while and had done some projects related to sexuality and health care and this was just felt like a natural fit.  So when Lana came to me with the idea I just felt first of all how can there be only four doctors in the country of this size who are doing this procedure. And then learning more about their ages and wondering what is life like for them. As soon as we met subjects themselves and just saw how different their personalities were, but how dedicated they were to this work and how courageous they were, I knew this was just going to be a great documentary.

WaH: How did you divide the directing duties?

LW: We weren’t the kind of directing team that really split up things. We just did everything together. When we were shooting we alternated doing sound and we had a cinematographer with us so one person could direct and the other could do sound and we could switch off.

WaH: Do you still like each other?

LW: Our relationship survived, which I know is often not the case.

WaH: What was the most surprising thing you learned while making the movie?

MS: I think for me one of the most surprising things was, I don’t mean to harp on this but, the doctors think so deeply and have such a complex attitude towards their own work. That they’re not just going to work every day and doing this in any sort of rote way, but that they have really thought about all the moral and ethical implications of what they’re doing and that they’ve really wrestled with how to decide if doing an abortion for a woman is the right thing at a certain stage and is there a line, and where do we draw that line.  Just to see how much the they struggled was really amazing.

LW: One of the things I was most surprised by and learned the most about was how unimaginably difficult the circumstances these women were coming out of were. At first I think I was a bit more judgmental of some of the patients in this film but as I watched the doctors more…. I was just surprised by how desperate some of the circumstances of these women were coming and tp what length some of them went to get to the clinic to get a third trimester abortion.

WaH: So why do you think it’s took the women doctors longer to agree to be a prt of the film than the male doctors?

MS: That’s a good question. The real reason is Dr. Tiller never did any interviews or any media. He felt like it wasn’t about him. It was about the women who he was taking care. I think the female doctors having work so closely with him and learned everything about third trimester abortion from him just felt that was the way it was.  But they ultimately they did this Rachel Maddow documentary. After that they didn’t actually have any sort of increase in threats or harassment and I think that was part of what gave them the confidence to at least meet with us with no cameras and just talk about the film.  I think they ultimately got on board because of the patients. They realized that through telling their stories as doctors and through having us in the clinic they would be able to get out the stories of these patients and the reasons why they’re seeking abortions and so that’s why they came on board eventually.

WaH: And speaking of the patients, how did you get them to agree?

LW: Every time a patient comes in they first fill out some basic paperwork with the counselor and we the counselor would say there are cameras in the clinic. These people are making a movie about the doctor here to try to illuminate late abortion. If you’re interested, they would love to film part of your story because it will help other people understand why women seek third trimester abortions.  So it was framed in that way to them and I think that the patients who agreed to participate did so because they had gone through this experience, never expecting in a million years that they would need a third trimester abortion, winding up here, walking through protesters to get into the clinic and having to go home and make up a story to their friends and family about what happened to their pregnancy. I think knew better than anyone how this could help bring a more of an understanding to it and that’s why they agreed.

WaH: It seemed that the female doctors were much more nuanced about the morality issues.  The men didn’t seem to struggle with it as much as the women do.

MS: I think in some ways that is true. I do think that the women at this stage in their lives were going through more of a struggle with the work itself.  It just happened that when we were filming them, Dr. Carhart was much more focused on finding a place to practice because the 20-week abortion ban had been passed in Nebraska so he was really just trying to find a way to keep going.  With Dr. Hern it was more about the balance of family and work now that he has a son and new wife.  The male doctors are very thoughtful about the work that they do,  I think that that’s something that they have struggled with and sort of come out on the other side and now there are other struggles.

WaH: What’s the biggest misconception about these doctors?

LW: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that they’re political figures when really they’re just doctors. Dr. Carhart is even a registered Republican.  But they went into this work with the motivation any other doctor has to alleviate pain and suffering and to help their patients.  They did not go into this to be a part of a huge political debate and to be a symbol of a movement or anything like that.

WaH: Do you think being female filmmakers helped them make the decisions to talk to you?

MS: Definitely. I think being young and female and not at all intimidating probably was a huge asset for us.  We were constantly being asked are you students, is this a student film?  People felt comfortable with us, and so I think that was really, really helpful.

WaH: And you’re not activists either.

MS: Not activists.  We spent a lot of our time filming just flat against the wall in a counseling room or in the operating room.  We were just trying to make ourselves as small and unobtrusive as possible. I really don’t think we would have gotten the access that we got if we weren’t young female filmmakers or female filmmakers.

WaH: What is the message for your generation?

LW: I think part of the message is for our generation is that this isn’t a black and white battle of ideas. We have to look at the real situations of women on the ground, which are gray, they’re messy, they’re imperfect, but that’s reality. I think that’s a big part of it.

WaH: What advice do you want to give other female filmmakers?

MS: I think the most important thing is just to make that first phone call. We were extremely nervous when we first set out to call the doctors and then to go out and meet them in person.  We were cramming and trying to read everything that they’d ever written and everything that had ever been written about them, but as soon as we met them they really put us at ease because they’re not scary people at all. They’re extremely friendly. They’re totally normal. They just happen to do this extraordinary work Also having a partner to work with I think is really important. It’s just a lot easier when you have someone you can rely on to work together and collaborate and share the work that needs to be done.

LW: Can I actually add to that advice,  I love that because I thought about it a lot because I wasn’t a filmmaker before this and I always wanted to be.

WaH: Are you one now?

LW: I think I am one now.

WaH: Are you going to make another film?

LW: I want to. I realized that for your first project you have to get the money together for it yourself. And I see a lot of male directors that have a lot more confidence and are a lot more successful at raising money for their own projects.  I think for me it was finally finding a subject that I actually felt was the most important subject in the world and that was so urgent that I could feel good about asking people to support it and not like it was some selfish vanity project.  That was probably the most important thing.

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