Hollywood Documentary on Abortion Politics to Premier
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Jan 20, 2007 at 02:50:42 AM EST
The most ambitious and likely to be the most influential film ever made on the politics of abortion will have its U.S. premier on January 28th, during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Lake Of Fire, by film maker Tony Kaye, in the works for more than 15 years, was a hit at the Toronto film festival last fall, gaining strong, positive reviews, for example in the Miami Herald and Variety.  It sought to be an exceptionaly even-handed treatment of the subject. By everything I have, read so far, it looks like Kaye succeeded.  A New York Times reviewer said: "it serves as a prime candidate for the definitive abortion documentary."

But beyond rave reviews, I think the film will be politically important. I think it will inform and shape -- and perhaps transform -- public conversation about the politics of abortion for years to come, as any  work of such force and distributed on a wide scale can do. In exactly what ways it will change the discourse on abortion, I cannot predict. But the coming of the film is nevertheless worth noting as we enter the election season. Those pols and the consultantocracy who believe they will no longer have to talk about abortion, may find themselves quite mistaken.

I have been awaiting the release of this film for a long time. Tony Kaye interviewed me for it 7 or 8 years ago. I had wondered if it would ever appear -- and if it did, I figured I would probably end up on the cutting room floor. As it turned out, I am in it, and am honored to be in some distinguished company.

I haven't seen it yet, but I may not have to wait too much longer. The film will be released this year by THINKfilm, a major film distribution company.

Following the Santa Barbara premier, I would anticipate that there will be screenings in selected venues before a more general theatrical release. One screening will be at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York on Feb 18th as part of the series, Critics Choice: Great Documentaries:

The New York Film Critics Circle is comprised of writers from New York-based newspapers and magazines. Each year, the Museum presents a series of films chosen and introduced by members of this prestigious group. For the 8th Annual NYFCC series, critics have selected nonfiction films that are as notable for their cinematic artistry as for their subject matter. Each film will be introduced by the critic who chose it, and in many cases, screenings will be followed by discussions with the filmmakers.

Indications are it is a powerful film that will contribute significantly to informed public public discussion of the subject. Lake of Fire is 152 minutes long, but reviewers say, amazingly enough it's not too long. They also say that it thoroughly explores the issues and subissues and personalities on both sides with a remarkably even hand. The film is shot in black and white in part, Kaye says, because with this issue, there are only shades of gray. He claims after all this time to remain confused about the subject. I believe him.

The film spends a lot of time on an underdiscussed subject: violence against abortion providers. Interviewees include Emily Lyons, an Alabama nurse who was severely injured by a pipe bomb exploded at a clinic by Eric Rudolph, who was on the FBIs Most Wanted List for years in connection with the bombing of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, as well as two clinics and a gay bar. Also interviewed is Paul Hill, who publicly advocated the notion that the murder of abortion providers is "justifiable homicide." Hill went on to murder a doctor and an escort himself, and was executed in Florida's electric chair for his crimes. The loose-but-nevertheless-criminal-and-theocratic revolutionary-underground-network is rarely discussed in one place, let alone in such a remarkable and prominent vehicle as this.  (If you follow the above links to Eric Rudolph and Paul Hill, they may provide a preview of the things I was talking about in those days that may have made it into the film.)

Over the years anti-abortion terrorists have been responsible for murders and attempted murders, hundreds of bombings, arsons, and attempted arsons, and many hundreds more incidents of death and bomb threats acts of vandalism, intimidation, stalking and burglary. You don't hear about it much. But it is a story of domestic terrorism that is politically inconvenient for polititians who would rather deal with it out of the glare of publicity that is usually what they seek. Some would rather pretend that it does not exist.  But I digress.

Here is an excerpt from the Variety review:

Interviewees speaking directly to camera range from linguist and cultural critic Noam Chomsky and Catholic campaigner Frances Kissling (both adamantly pro-choice), to lawyer Alan Dershowitz (more mixed on the issue), to eminent jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who although he professes to be an atheist still firmly believes a fetus has just as much right to life as any infant.

More typical, religiously informed pro-lifers include homophobic fundamentalist Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, seen being heckled by transvestites at a Washington, D.C., rally, and various other Florida-based anti-abortion zealots, some of whom (Michael Griffin and Paul Hill) ended up murdering doctors who performed abortions. Footage of Griffin and Hill's trials is seen, while sociologist Dallas Blanchard acts as a commentator and guide through their case histories.

Kaye also includes footage of a clearly deranged Hill before he committed his crime declaiming that people who say "God damn it" will be condemned to eternal suffering in hell.

Editing moves effortlessly between political and ethical speechifying and more personal stories. Some are famous, like Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, the woman pseudonymously named in the key 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the U.S. and who is now a passionate pro-lifer.

In contrast, a 29-year-old woman named Stacey is observed going through the whole process of having a termination, from the counseling to the procedure itself. Afterward, she's shaken but unrepentant about having made the right decision for her.

Here is the Santa Barbara Film Festival's summary:

Ever since Roe v. Wade, the United States has been deeply divided on the issue of abortion. In that landmark case, an unmarried woman was refused an abortion in Texas. The judicial challenge that followed won women the right to legal abortions. Proponents and opponents have lined up on either side of the issue ever since, launching verbal abuse - and worse - at each other. As the religious right has increasingly flexed its power, the issue has become even more divisive - and violent.

While many have tried to treat the topic as a simple question of right and wrong, filmmaker Tony Kaye (AMERICAN HISTORY X)--who has spent the past fifteen years working on the documentary--goes out of his way to probe the complexities of the issue, giving time to both sides, and scoring no easy points at anyone's expense.

Interviewing a range of individuals-from fundamentalist Christians to professors of sociology, philosophy, and bioethics; from hardcore pro-lifers to equally impassioned pro-choice advocates-Kaye splices into the motivations of each side. It is in the grey areas that we find some of the most interesting commentary, much of which is provided by Noam Chomsky, who intelligently dissects the issue. Kaye also devotes time to nurses and doctors who have been threatened, some wounded or killed in attacks on their lives and clinics.

This is not a film for the faint-hearted; be warned that there are graphic images of termination procedures and their aftermath. Kaye endeavors to show abortion's physical and psychological reality, to make clear what exactly is at stake. LAKE OF FIRE is measured, intelligent and suitably objective. It is a brave film that is sure to prompt serious debate.

Reuters reported:  

While 2 1/2 hours may sound like a long time for a documentary on one of America's most endlessly rehashed issues, the end credits may roll in "Lake of Fire" before viewers tire of it.

Smart, visually appealing and consistently engaging, it finds fresh ways of addressing a debate that is, thanks to new state laws and changes in the Supreme Court, once again becoming unavoidable. It has the right stuff to rise above the nonfiction pack both in commercial terms and in the public discussion, even if the subject's fatigue factor will keep some potential viewers away.

Certainly, the controversy is not going away anytime soon. The militant antiabortion group, Operation Rescue, which has been hounding Wichita, Kansas abortion provider George Tiller for many years, is holding a weekend of actions this weekend in Wichita, Kansas, responding, they say to a call by TV talk show host Bill O'Reilly, who declared: "There should be thousands of people demonstrating outside Tiller's abortion clinic in Wichita."

Dr.Tiller's clinic was bombed in 1985 and he was the target of an assassination attempt in 1993, in which he was wounded in both arms. Some 25,000 turned out at the height of protests in Wichita in the summer of 1991.   Only a few dozen protesters turned out on the first day of the weekend of protest activity, signaling the bitter end of mass demonstrations for Operation Rescue type groups for the foreseeable future.

But certainly the war of attrition will continue in the courts, in the legislatures, in the streets, and in the dead of night.

whether we like it or not, things change. My hunch, without yet having seen the film, is that those who are concerned about the religious right and its role in seeking to roll back reproductive rights, ought to be considering what kind of impact this film will have, and begin to make the necessary adjustments and consider what kinds of opportunities may be present.

For example, there have been few media events that have shined the spotlight so clearly on religiously motivated violence in the United States -- and then became available forever on DVD.  

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Jan 20, 2007 at 04:05:00 AM EST

Tony Kaye must have infinite patience to follow the story for so long while not know whether the film would recieve a serious hearing in the end.  This is a coup for all of us.

My son will be at the festival.  They accepted his student film in the short catagory.  I'll have to give him a heads up to make a point of seeing the film and meeting Kaye.

by tikkun on Sat Jan 20, 2007 at 09:52:41 AM EST

Does anyone know if Lake of Fire will get a wider distribution for those of us here in flyover country?  I'd love to watch it.

"I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair" - JFK, Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association
by hardindr on Sat Jan 20, 2007 at 04:46:53 PM EST
But it will be out this year. The distributor is THINKfilm. They would be the ones to ask. I haven't seen any info yet on distribution plans. I would guess that it will at least make it into the art houses. Whether it also makes it to the mall-based theater chains the way that Fareinheit 911 or An Inconvenient Truth did, remains to be seen.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Jan 20, 2007 at 04:52:05 PM EST

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