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Sundance Futures: Lana Wilson, Martha Shane Challenge Assumptions About Third-Trimester Abortions in 'After Tiller'

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com January 25, 2013 at 11:59AM

Sundance Futures: Lana Wilson, Martha Shane Challenge Assumptions About Third-Trimester Abortions in 'After Tiller'
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Martha Shane and Lana Wilson
Why They're On Our Radar:  "After Tiller," in Sundance's U.S. Documentary Competition, is the feature-length directing debut of Lana Wilson and Martha Shane.  The film is also one of the most buzzed-about, intense films of this year's festival.  While Wilson is fairly green as a filmmaker, Shane produced the bisexuality documentary "Bi the Way" and directed a longer short doc "Make the People Happy." 

"After Tiller" examines the difficulties encountered and the hard work expended by the four doctors still openly performing third trimester abortions in the U.S. following the 2009 killing of one of their colleagues, Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas.  The four doctors, who were all there for the film's World Premiere screening, said that it was the first time they had seen the experiences and the tough decisions encountered by both patients and doctors going through this procedure.  They added that those wanting to make some change in policy should call their legislators and encourage their friends to see this film.

What's Up Next: Wilson is beginning preliminary research on a few documentaries.  Shane is working on the "The Mystery of Marie Jocelyne," which she is co-directing with Dan Nuxoll. 

How has your Sundance been so far?

Shane: It has been amazing.  It's been overwhelmingly positive.  We came here prepared for protests, lots of aggressive and hostile questions.  It's been nothing but positive feedback.

Wilson: We had the doctors here for the opening weekend.  They were not prepared for this. "Who do you think is gonna want to see this movie?," they were asking us.  One offered to hook us up with a local women's festival.  They were just stunned we got into Sundance.  That it got in was really gratifying.

"Our generation has been alienated by abortion. It's a shouting match."

After the first screening, someone asked you why you, younger women not old enough to be a part of the earlier fights for abortion rights, made this film.  How did being feminists, if I can assume, affect how you came to this story?

Wilson: We're both pro-choice and we were before we made this movie.  A lot of pro-choice people don't support third-trimester abortion.  The pro-choice movement has been fighting for birth control and access to early abortion. Third-trimester abortions are less than 1% of all abortions.  It's not a big part of their fight and their messaging.  This has made it challenging to get funding and support for the film.

Shane:  One of the things we were thinking of when making this film was: with the anniversary of Roe V. Wade, where are we with abortion rights?  Our generation has been alienated by abortion.  It's a shouting match.   We wanted a little bit of complexity to that situation and learn from the people who haven't really been heard from before.

Wilson: We wanted to show a spectrum of the reasons why people get this procedure.  As the doctors say, how could you possibly support this procedure unless you understand what's going on with the woman?

How did you get access to these people's stories?  Everyone is so honest.  It's a real testament to the filmmakers that we're able to get such incredible insight into these stories.

Wilson: When women came in, we had the counselor explain that there's a camera in the clinic and that we are filmmakers who want to show people's stories without identifying them.  Most patients didn't agree because they're going through these horrible situations.  But those who did agree, they could get better than anyone how important it is to get these stories out there.  They're confronted by the protestors outside the clinics.  When they go home they have to come up with a story of what happened to their pregnancy.

Shane:  A big part of the reason we were given access to the doctors was seeing two young female filmmakers.  We're the two most unintimidating people in the world.  We were going to strive to be as unobtrusive as possible. That's a reason why they felt comfortable having us in the clinic. Most of the time we were shooting as flat against the wall as we could.

Lana Wilson, Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Susan Robinson, Dr. Shelley Sella, Dr. Warren Hern and Martha Shane at the film's premiere.

And it's probable that individual viewers won't agree with every decision in the film, but it's really complicated!  You can see how hard it is.

Wilson: It was important to us that we don't just present the fetal anomaly cases that are easier to sympathize with.  Maternal cases -- those are a lot more difficult.  For pro-choice people,  it's important to think about "What does it mean to be pro-choice?"  People come from imperfect lives and difficult situations.  A lot of people say about that the case of the 16-year-old girl [in the film].  That's something we wanted to keep in in the editing.  The most difficult and challenging to grapple with, we wanted to keep that in.  We wanted to think about the bigger issues that lead to some of these situations:  sex education, contraception, the adults in girls' lives, lack of information and support.  How does this reflect on us.

Shane: We had an amazing editor, Greg O'Toole. We thought about how to present these cases in such a way that audiences would be putting themselves in the shoes of the doctors or the patients.  The doctors do have to make these incredibly difficult challenging calls all the time.

Wilson: One thing our editor said, when we were having trouble deciding how to shape the audience's experience, he would say: what's honest?  Are we representing each one in the most honest way possible?

How did you decide to collaborate on this film?

Wilson: I had never made a film and Martha had been making films. Martha's films had been relating to health and sexuality, it seemed right up her alley, subject-wise.

Shane: I immediately knew what a thoughtful filmmaker and partner she would be.  I was totally intrigued by this subject.  How is it possible in a country this size there are four doctors doing this procedure? I knew this film had to be made.

Wilson: We had also been really good friends for years.  There are no unknowns because we knew each other.  There are so many partnerships that go awry, but that has not happened.

As you said, when people are talking about abortion, it's usually a shouting match. How are people responding to your film and how are you convincing people to see that this isn't more of the same?

Wilson: I think it's really new and there's a lot of surprising things in this film.  No matter where you stand on this issue, people see it in a very black and white way.  You think you know where you are. These cases don't reduce easily to sound bites.  The debates we're having now are very abstract debates.  We want to get past all this.  It will make you look at yourself in a more deep and thoughtful way -- about how you judge people in general.

Shane: It's really about word of mouth for a film like this.  When you're talking about the film at cocktail parties to people who haven't seen it, I talk about my film and people turn around and talk to someone else.  Anyone that does see it, people don't say "What are we having for dinner?  What are we doing now?" afterwards.  They're gonna talk about it with their families and friends.

Wilson: Aren't you curious about people who risk their lives for a job?  Politics and abortion aside, just to be in such a position.  I think people are going to be curious.

This article is related to: Festivals, After Tiller, Lana Wilson, Martha Shane, Futures, Sundance Film Festival