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‘The Janes’ Shows a Path Through the Midterms’ Most Devastating Potential Outcome

Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes discuss the creative choices that make their story of the past very much about the U.S.' present and future.

The Janes documentary on HBO

“The Janes”

courtesy of HBO

Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary “The Janes” doesn’t talk about the rollback of abortion rights in the 21st century. This might initially seem surprising, given that the film is about and interviews extensively members of an underground abortion network — known as The Jane Collective or, more simply, Jane — active in Chicago in the late ’60s and ’70s, ending when the now-overturned Roe v. Wade decision took effect. But by focusing squarely on the forces that inspired The Jane Collective to form, the mechanics of how it operated, and its radical importance to the women who ran and used the service, Lessin and Pildes do create a charged picture of modern American politics: one that, unfortunately, says all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.

“I mean, well before the Dobbs decision came down, well before Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, there were increasing  numbers of restrictions and barriers for access. So this was very much on our minds and certainly on the minds of the women that we interviewed from The Janes when we spoke with them,” Lessin told IndieWire. “It certainly informed our filmmaking choices and the anger that we felt and the worry that we had and our determination to show the reality of what it looks like when abortion rights don’t exist.”

But what the documentary itself looks like is perhaps an antidote to simply doomscrolling through the midterm elections. Lessin and Pildes use an incredibly rich array of archive footage, from NBC news investigations to poetic experimental narratives catching the light off Lake Michigan, to create an immersive sense of Chicago in the early ’70s. The archive material doesn’t just support but in many ways acts as a compliment to the interviews with The Janes, crafting the sense of empowerment these women clearly felt in building a collective that subverted a monstrously unjust system.

“It’s an important story and it’s an incredibly timely story, more timely than we could have maybe even predicted. But it’s also a great story. We loved the idea of sort of making a heist film on some level, having that element throughout, in the music, in the footage,” Pildes told IndieWire. “I’ve said this before, but [heists are] traditionally a very macho ’70s genre. So not only was it fun as documentary filmmakers to feel like we’re getting an opportunity to make a heist film, but [one that was] inverting the genre and making sort of a feminist heist film.”

“The Janes” does follow, in a lot of ways, the beats of a heist film, from the assembly of a crew, the motive and opportunity, how they created a roving abortion clinic that changed locations every week, how they avoided the law, what setbacks they suffered, and what they were able to steal from society: women’s freedom to shape their own lives. But it treats these beats as reportage, told solely through on-camera interviews, and therefore gets to be gloriously stranger than fiction. Lessin and Pildes found a woman who used both the Janes as a service and had a mob abortion, and could compare the two. They also found extraordinary footage of women in Chicago, of all walks of life, all impacted in ways large and small by the prevailing freedoms and laws of the time.

“We wanted to look into the faces of women of all kinds at that time and have them be present because those were the women that Jane was serving,” Pildes said. “We wanted that feeling of isolation, that feeling of fear, that feeling of triumph and self-reliance at times, for all of that to come alive in the faces of the women on the street at in Chicago.”

“We found extraordinary richness of documentation. The protest movements, obviously, at that time were very well documented, but also the horror of the septic abortion ward at Cook County Hospital, which an NBC crew happened to film, and the raid footage of clinics across the country by the police, the women they serve brought into precincts, providers being put in jail. I’d never seen that footage before,” Lessin said. “It was sobering footage to see, because we know that this is what it’s gonna look like —  what it is looking like — in this present day.”

Listen to the entire discussion above or read on for excerpts from the conversation. To hear this and more conversations with your favorite TV and film creators, subscribe to the Toolkit podcast via Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, or Overcast.

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