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Tribeca: A Director Explains Her Difficult Journey to Make ‘Abortion: Stories Women Tell’

Tribeca: A Director Explains Her Difficult Journey to Make 'Abortion: Stories Women Tell'

[Editor’s Note: Tracy Droz Tragos is the Emmy and Sundance Award-winning director behind such films as “Rich Hill” and “Be Good, Smile Pretty.” Her new film “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” will air on HBO later this year, but is premiering tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. Indiewire asked Tragos if she’d be willing to share her experiences taking on this controversial subject and what we got was this very personal essay about the process and struggle of trying to tell the story of what women with unintended pregnancies go through to have an abortion in the U.S.]

At least half of the women in America will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45. At 2008 rates, one in ten women will have an abortion by age 20, one in four by age 30 and three in ten by age 45. And here we are in 2016, more than 40 years after Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, with presidential hopefuls talking about punishing women who seek abortion care and with more and more restrictive state laws being passed seemingly on a daily basis. 

In 2014, I set out to make a film about abortion. I had no idea how to start, except perhaps to focus in my home state of Missouri because it is one of the most restrictive in the country, with only one abortion clinic still operating and a 72-hour waiting period legally mandated. But that was the only parameter I had at the beginning. 
How do you approach making a film about a topic that has been done before and often? And on top of that, a subject that is so charged and politicized? How do you invite a broad audience and make it even remotely watchable? How do you imagine that the film might have even a small impact on one of the most divisive issues in the country?
I’m a filmmaker who likes to go deep with personal stories – so taking on the subject of abortion was a bit out of my comfort zone, to say the least. If I was going to make this film, I had to imagine a wide view – not to politicize, but rather to hear from a range of voices and points of view, and really to listen. My intention was to add a different perspective to the abortion debate: Not only to hear from the loudest, who have their talking points perfected, but also to hear from those who have been the most left out of the conversation, and often stigmatized and shamed: women with unintended pregnancies who are abortion patients.

To be totally forthcoming, I do have an opinion on the matter. I do approach this material with a perspective and I am far from a disinterested party.  I’m a woman of child-bearing age and a mother of two daughters.  My oldest turns 11 this summer, and she’s already into door-slamming.  Basically, puberty is imminent.  In our house, when the time is right, we will discuss birth control. My goal is to have it available no matter what – with some questions asked, but not too many. And if my daughters get pregnant before they want to be mothers, my hope is that they will have access to the care they need, without shame or punishment.

And while it is certainly more comfortable to be generous with people with whom I agree, my goal with this film was to be generous with subjects on all sides of the issue, no matter what. There seems to be progress with other social and human rights issues, but with reproductive issues, our country continues to be stymied. With the conversation around reproductive rights as stuck as it is, the challenge is to listen more deeply to people with whom you may not agree. To stop demonizing and name-calling – but to reflect on the “other side.” To see the complexity that defies “sides.”
This was my approach:
Unplanned pregnancy and abortion stories. Even though I met with some eloquent advocates and activists, unless they were willing to speak from a very personal place about their experience – it became clear that they shouldn’t be in this film. On my journey to find women willing to speak openly about their unplanned pregnancies and abortion, I had to wade through the spokespeople, sitting through interviews I knew I would never use.
Access.  One of the biggest, most immediate obstacles in making the film was access, especially to patients on the day of their abortions. An unplanned pregnancy is still a very private matter even though many women have already had that privacy stripped away especially in Missouri, where even after a woman jumps through the legal hoops, there remains the emotional gauntlet. To step into a clinic means walking past a line of protestors who often are snapping photos and writing down license plate numbers, with men on megaphones that just yell shaking bloody pictures on poster-board. 
Especially for low-income women who have no access to private care, seeking reproductive health services has become a public act – like breaking a strike or desegregating a school. So, for me to meet these patients, who have been bullied and harassed, and then to ask them to share their stories with an unknown audience, was a big, perhaps even outrageous, thing to do. There was a lot at stake – both for me and them. My film and the goal of advancing the conversation relied on their stories – but who wants to go public on something like this? Especially in Missouri? Being part of a documentary like this takes tremendous courage. 
Patience. Ultimately, all I could do was state my intentions, make myself available and be extremely patient. I knew there was value in the endeavor – but on days when an entire crew sat in a break room and no patients came forward, it was nerve-wracking to wait it out. Many patients were grateful that I was making the film but couldn’t consent to being on camera – they feared the repercussions they would face in their small towns or from their families, or that they would lose their jobs. I never labeled the film as “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” I made it clear that we were capturing the stories of many women, with a range of perspectives and attitudes, whose choices were specific to their lives and pregnancies. For the women who ultimately chose to be on camera, there was often a strong desire to speak of their choice, to shed some measure of the stigma they knew they faced. They felt victimized by the protestors in front of the clinic, and they wanted to reclaim their power and their voice. Every one of our subjects spoke of the desire to support other women in their same circumstances, to help ease their shame and feeling of isolation.

Strength In Numbers. Even though my tendency is to stay away from films with lots of people – I am terrified of over-populating a film – that’s what this film needed. The circumstances of why a woman might seek an abortion are so individual and so varied, we had to go wide. There is strength in numbers here, and this film was going to hear from a lot of women. Ultimately, over time, I was able to speak with over forty women – both pro-life and pro-choice. I spoke with women who looked back on their abortions years later with a range of emotions – some with gratitude and some with nostalgia. I also spoke with women who chose to carry their unplanned pregnancies to term, and had their plans for the future derailed as a result. I spoke with a couple who had placed their child for adoption – and were grief-stricken. There was no box in which to put any of these stories – patients were in their 40’s and teens, in stable and unstable relationships, all races and economic backgrounds. There were students, nurses, waitresses, accountants, paralegals, hair stylists, security guards. Simple-speaking women who believed in God; women who had children, loved being mothers and knew what was involved; women who were in abusive relationships and saw this as the only way out.  Abortion could not be reduced to a single story.
Support. Making a film that focuses on abortion is not for the faint of heart – and especially one that tries to take new point of view. I would never have had the guts without Sheila Nevins and Sara Bernstein at HBO Documentary Films. Without them, these risks would not have been taken, stories would have been over-simplified, and the film would never have seen the light of day. I am grateful to have had these documentary goddesses in my corner. When approaching such a divisive and well-covered issue, it was vital to have their collaboration and support.

Ultimately, through personal stories, I hope our film succeeds in transcending advocacy, and feels watchable no matter what the viewer’s political persuasion. My experience making this film made me realize how devastating it is to deny women access to the healthcare they need – whether it’s education, birth control or abortion care. With its intimate look at the real lives of real women, perhaps this film might move the debate, even just a bit, out of the realm of rhetoric, away from ideology and all that damning to hell, to a place of empathy and compassion for every woman who faces this important and intensely personal decision. 

“Abortion: Stories Women Tell” premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. 

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Check out another Tribeca premiere below, with the “LoveTrue” trailer:

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