Today, as many press and industry members left town, I was excited to take in a couple of the most highly-anticipated titles on my list of must-see movies. First up was Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim (more on this at another time, but I liked it very much), and after a quick lunch, I hustled to the Varsity 7 to catch the second press screening of Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire. I was exhausted from the week’s work, and the film’s difficult subject matter seemed daunting; already on an emotional edge, worn out, and perhaps more open and vulnerable as a viewer than I might otherwise have been, I wasn’t sure I could do it. But by the time the film let out, I felt transformed and overwhelmed.
I believe that in 20 years time, as our nation’s political landscape changes in whatever ways it will, we will return to Lake of Fire, along with films like Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, Albert and David Maysles’ Gimme Shelter, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA and Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, as an essential documentary; A piece of the cinematic puzzle of our nation. I knew Lake Of Fire would be difficult (any responsible film about the issue of abortion must be), but I was not prepared for the film’s epic complexity; I have used the word masterpiece on this site before, but Lake of Fire is one of the most important documentary films ever made. Shot entirely on gorgeous black and white film and utilizing extreme close-ups of many of his interview subjects to tremendous effect, Kaye (best known for American History X and the long battle over that film) has crafted what is, both aesthetically, politically, and cinematically, what I can only imagine will be remembered as the film of record about our battle over a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
Shot over a 16-year period (from 1991 to the present day) and running 150 minutes, the film is much more than a simple roll-call of the names and faces that have lead the fight over abortion rights in the last two decades; it is, quite simply, a devastating chronicle of America’s slow and steady slide into political intolerance. With unimaginable access to people on both sides of the issue, Kaye refuses to flinch from the comprehensive presentation that the subject requires; Footage includes crime scene films, clinic bombings and murders, protests, clinic defenses and trials, but the film’s heart and soul are the conversations with advocates for a woman’s right to choose and those opposed to abortion. Most difficult of all, two abortion procedures are shown in detail.
What is startling (and ultimately what makes the film so important) is Kaye’s understanding that, while the issue itself is almost a blank screen upon which every sort of deeply felt human belief is projected, the crucial element at play in the abortion debate is the lack of an adequate ethical framework to help the majority of people create a sensible solution to the political divide. That is to say, while no one doubts that a fetus is ‘human’ in some way or other (either as its earliest, unfinished form or as a human baby from the moment of conception), there is no way to definitively know with absolute certainty what the relationship between each day of gestation and the development of a human life is. We are left with unanswerable, highly politicized ambiguity, in the murky gray area where human behavior takes over and we discover far more conflicts than solutions; Human faith and religious authority versus a constitutional democracy that specifically chose to nullify the influence of religion on activities of state, the reality of demand for abortion necessitating safe access to a legal procedure for women pitted against a religious ideal of the world where making abortion illegal is the first step in creating a moral utopia.
And then there is the violence. At the center of the film’s first half is the string of murders of abortion providers in Florida, Boston and New York. The film’s most powerful example of the rise of violent intolerance is seen in the case of Paul Hill, the former Presbyterian minister who murdered Dr. John Britton and and his bodyguard, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Herman Barrett outside a women’s clinic in Pensacola, Florida on July 29th, 1994. Hill shows up early on in the film when he is seen defending the murderer Michael Griffin outside the Pensacola courtroom (Griffin himself was convicted of murdering Dr. David Gunn on March 10, 1993, a year before Hill committed his own murder at the same clinic). In a press conference after Griffin receives a guilty verdict, Hill is seen on camera calling the murders a “just response” to the act of performing a legal abortion. A camera operator in the crowd takes Hill to task for his advocacy of violence and makes an off-hand comment, asking “if we’ll be seeing you on trial for murder in a few months,” and Hill pauses as the seed is clearly planted in his own mind. Hill becomes a regular outside the clinic, is seen protesting at a memorial service for Dr. Gunn, and then finally erupts in violence. Kaye has plenty of footage of Hill’s escalating campaign against the clinic; the entire progression from activist to murderer is visible on screen. Hill was subsequently executed by the State of Florida on September 3, 2003.
Paul Hill, outside the Pensacola Women’s Clinic
Griffin and Hill’s intertwined story transforms the film and deeply complicates the anti-choice position; as advocates of murder and vigilante justice who disregard the legitimacy of our nation’s laws because they do not conform to their religious vision, Griffin and Hill as well as their fellow murderers Eric Robert Rudolph, James Charles Kopp (who is not named in the film) and John Salvi provide a horrifying insight into the role religious faith and moral certainty have in some individual’s response to the law. Kaye tells this story straight; he allows people to speak without inserting his own voice as an advocate on either side of the issue, but he isn’t simply focused on the anti-choice movement. He also doesn’t validate Hill and Griffin’s connection between the termination of a pregnancy and murder by comparing Hill and Griffin’s actions to the act of abortion, instead allowing ethicists and the faithful to discuss the implications of the crime.
Before I mistakenly misrepresent this film as being a loaded, pro-choice film that pits rational, free-thinking pro-choice advocates against murdering anti-choice activists, let me say once again that many voices on both sides of the argument are heard and the film does an amazing job of showing the ethical dilemma surrounding abortion. In the film’s final moments, Kaye personalizes that dilemma in the most difficult and dramatic of ways by showing us a young woman go through the entire process of receiving an abortion. It is in the story of this woman that the film clearly outlines the difficulty of the personal decision to terminate a pregnancy. It also shows the procedure in detail, from the psychological support and interview process to the surgery itself. The film is not for the faint hearted, and its refusal to look away from the physical reality of abortion will raise many questions in the minds of viewers on both sides of the issue. The aftermath of the procedure provides the perfect coda to the film, but it also left me with the distinct feeling that somehow, the Roe lawyers got it right when they framed the prohibition of abortion as a violation of our 4th Amendment right to privacy. Because, for all of the bluster, violence and hostility on display in the film (and in society), Kaye gets it absolutely right when he shows the act of terminating a pregnancy as being, essentially, the most private and personal decision currently guaranteed by federal law.
The Women’s March on Washington
Interestingly, both sides of this issue would love to see reductions in the number of abortions performed as no one wants to see a woman face the terrible and difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. But we do not live in a utopia, nor will we ever, and as such, Americans must search for a way to reconcile ourselves to the realities of human behavior and human faith while finding a way to live together despite our deep differences. Kaye’s profound ambivalence about that possibility is on display from the get go. There are no solutions here, no bridges built, no pathways to understanding. What makes the film great is its acknowledgment that it can provide no answers, but rather a comprehensive, deeply felt illustration of the depth of the problem. You only need look as far as the film’s title for proof.
Lake of Fire gets its name from a passage in the Book of Revelation, quoted in the film, which summarizes the depth of the divide as concisely as anything probably can.
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire, This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” –The Book of Revelation, Chapter 20, Verses 12-15
Where can we go from here? How can we find a middle ground between those who believe that non-Christians will spend eternity in a Lake of Fire in Hell and those who seek personal privacy and freedom of choice to make an incredibly difficult, painful decision to terminate a pregnancy? I don’t care to get into the politics of abortion here, because it makes it almost impossible to talk about the film and accurately describe Kaye’s delicate balancing act, so I hope that my thoughts on the film are seen as just that; thoughts on a film. I have my own beliefs, but I refuse to trade in the hostilities on display in the movie. Take that for what it is worth. Or think of this review as an attempt to practice what I preach and make a gesture toward those with whom I disagree. Either way, I believe fair-minded people on both sides of the debate must see the film and I hope it can become a tool for opening discussion about this profound issue among those who disagree. I will be very interested to watch this film as it makes its way through the world, and despite leaving me with the feeling of being absolutely devastated, I almost can’t wait to see it again. It is absolutely essential and like I said, will be remembered as such. The best film I’ve seen in Toronto by a wide margin.