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Abortion Rights Documentarians Speak Out: It’s Time to Get to Work (Column)

After the defeat of Roe v. Wade, directors talk about the impact of their work and what’s needed now.

after tiller

“After Tiller”

After the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, it might seem crass to talk about the movies. This week’s column is not here to offer listicles about must-see cinema on a subject that causes such immediate pain and hardship. However, the people who produced documentaries on abortion rights provided essential context— and a few hours after the court’s decision, they told me we need more.

“We need all hands on deck,” said filmmaker Heidi Ewing, speaking over Zoom from the Nantucket Film Festival. “I’ve never claimed that movies can change the world, but I do feel movies should be part of all the conversations we’re having about this.”  

As Ewing and others explained, this work can have measurable impact. With her regular co-director Rachel Grady, Ewing made the 2010 documentary “12th & Delaware,” which looked at both sides of the divide by contrasting an abortion clinic in Fort Pierce, Florida with the “crisis pregnancy center” across the street designed to talk women out of the procedure. Ewing said that after making the movie, which includes harrowing scenes of anti-abortion protestors harassing women as they enter the clinic, they found audiences stirred to take action.

“I can tell you about multiple times that I was approached by or received emails from people who said after seeing the movie, that they were felt like they were sitting aside as bystanders,” she said. “They decided after they saw the movie to spend their weekends escorting women through these yelling crowds. Sometimes they helped support candidates who were pro-choice. They decided to join the fight. I know the movie opened people up to that.”

Lana Wilson, who co-directed the devastating 2013 documentary “After Tiller” with Martha Shane, had a similar story. The movie looks at the quartet of doctors who continued to perform late-term abortions after abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered by an extremist in 2009. It includes illuminating footage of women at clinics discussing the specifics of their decision to have abortions.

“A lot of anti-abortion people said to me they could see that these doctors were compassionate and doing what they thought was best,” Wilson said. “They were struck by the detail of certain situations women were in. I think that’s because the national debate is so abstract and simplistic. It’s so often about theoretical debates about when life begins.” 

Wilson doesn’t believe filmmaking is a panacea. “Making films isn’t enough,” she said. “People need to organize and donate to change the situation on the ground. Films can be a part of that, but they alone are not a solution.”

At the same time, she added, the willingness of women to allow their experiences at abortion clinics to be captured on camera spoke to the need for such work.

“Often women agreed to be in the film because they went through all of this stuff,” Wilson said. “They would walk through all these protesters, screaming that they’re murderers, who had no idea about their circumstances. From that they realized the only way you can understand why women need abortions is to hear about the complicated life circumstances they’re in, and the difficult decisions they have to make.” 

“Trapped”

Dawn Porter said she saw that need reflected in audience responses to her own documentary, 2016’s “Trapped,” which looks at states that enacted restrictive TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers). “At every single screening, someone broke down in tears and for the first time told her abortion story to a whole crowd of people,” said Porter, who is currently working on a docuseries about the politicization of the Supreme Court. “I was overwhelmingly surprised by the amount of private messages I received about people who said they felt so much shame until they saw the movie, until they realized how common abortions are. It was such a positive emotional response.”

“Trapped” also became the centerpiece of an hour-long segment by John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight,” which galvanized activists. Porter said when she went to the Supreme Court to watch activists leading up to the 2016 decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which then reaffirmed a woman’s constitutional right to legal abortions. She saw many protesters carrying signs with quotes from the film due to the popularity of Oliver’s segment. 

“I think that well-researched and honestly composed films can do an immeasurable amount of good,” she said. “You have to do your research. I mean, I wrote to every single legislator in Alabama and Texas who had sponsored the anti-choices and nobody agreed to an interview. We did our best to unpack whether women had been helped by these regulations and couldn’t find anything.”

Likewise, during the Supreme Court hearing, the justices asked the plaintiffs how many women had been helped by the laws. “They couldn’t point to anyone,” Porter said. “That was really gratifying because it was consistent with what we found. It wasn’t just an emotional piece pulling on people’s heartstrings. As filmmakers, we don’t just create empathy. We can have sober conversations about facts. There’s a responsibility there to be accurate not to polemical pieces, but to confront the truth and say what it really is.” 

But what does any of that mean now, as 14 states with trigger laws prepare to outlaw abortion outright? “I woke up wondering and worrying about all the people that work at these clinics,” said Porter, a former lawyer who was infuriated by the SCOTUS brief written by Justice Clarence Thomas. “This is a decision that will be infamous in the years to come for its breadth, and for its staggering, egregious inaccuracy,” she said. 

She emphasized the broader socioeconomic ramifications at hand. “What I saw when I made my film was a story about poverty as much as anything else,” she said. “People would literally say they could not afford the children they had. That’s what I wanted people to see, not these political football games.” 

In other words, it’s not a futile exercise to find the humanity behind the headlines, and plenty of stakeholders want to see these stories get told. All of these projects benefited from an ecosystem that wants to see these stories told. “After Tiller” was produced in part with a grant from Chicken & Egg Pictures, “12th and Delaware” was made by HBO, and “Trapped” came together after an initial $5,000 emergency grant followed by a year of fundraising efforts. The industry has become more friendly to documentaries since these projects came out, creating greater potential to address abortion rights through non-fiction storytelling.

“12th and Delaware”

“There are private investors, the streamers, advocacy groups, people looking for awards,” Ewing said. “There has been a massive commercialization of documentary. It’s astonishing to see how many people have entered the field. They’re relatively cheap to make and it’s a small crew that can execute something. It’s also brought a lot pop stuff like ‘Tiger King,’ but that hasn’t pushed out the more substantial stuff. I think there’s room for everyone.” 

This kind of filmmaking also has a long tail as it creates a historical record. Anyone reeling from how this country wound up with religious conservatives dominating the nation’s highest court can find some answers in Ewing and Grady’s work. The pair first noticed an emboldened religious right when they made their Oscar-nominated 2007 feature “Jesus Camp,” which clued them into the existence of pregnancy centers. There’s a scene in that shocking and powerful movie in which the pastor Lou Engle riles up a group of children. “They’re shouting ‘righteous judges,'” Ewing said. “They were always focused on the Supreme Court.” (Today, those children are old enough to vote.)

The directors fought to bookend “Jesus Camp” with George W. Bush seeking a replacement for retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor and finding it in Samuel Alito, even though some advisors thought it was off-topic. “They knew his beliefs,” Ewing said about her subjects. “I thought it was extra chilling to see that he’d written the additional opinion [on overturning Roe]. It just reminded us of that victory and what they were going for.”

The pair’s next film, “Endangered,” isn’t about abortion rights; it deals with journalists who put their lives at risk. “Every month we’re approached about things that are too close to what we’ve already done,” said Ewing. “But even if I’m not the one doing it, people should start shooting tomorrow. We need to see this. There’s nothing I can say that’s over-the-top right now. It’s a complete gamechanger. So I really hope filmmakers can show us what this situation looks like now.”

When the Roe decision leaked in May, I called Planned Parenthood film and TV consultant Caren Spruch. She helped recent narrative films deal with abortion in accurate and effective ways, from “Obvious Child” to “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Spruch made a strong case for more work that could capture these stories in personal terms.

“The way we change the culture is through art,” she said. “It’s not going to happen fast, and this is a setback, but what’s happening now makes this work even more urgent.” 

It may be too soon to consider the narratives that will be necessitated by the new challenges faced by women who suffer from the Supreme Court’s decision. But for documentarians, the directive is clear: It’s time to get to work. 

The three documentary films mentioned in this week’s column don’t tell the whole story. I encourage readers to share other examples of work that illustrates the healthcare challenges posed by abortion, and the essential services associated with its practice. Filmmakers working on upcoming projects are encouraged to share details that could be featured in an upcoming installment of this column: eric@indiewire.com

Donate to support abortion rights here.

Browse previous columns here. 

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