Movies and the Politics of Abortion in '08
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Jun 21, 2007 at 01:34:39 AM EST
Lake of Fire, the Hollywood documentary film about the politics of abortion has been appearing at film festivals en route to theaters. But its official release in October will be too soon for many. It is one of those large cultural and political events that will set back the unprepared and advance the efforts of those savvy enough to anticipate it. Indeed, those who want to defend and advance reproductive rights, and those who keep an eye on how to best contend with the religious right, will be wise to take the possible impact of this film fully into account. That the film comes out just four months before the early, and perhaps decisive, presidential primaries may be inconvenient for just about everyone concerned. But that's just the way it is. Forewarned is forearmed.

I have been following the film's progress in part because I am in it (as a talking head), and in part because I believe the film is a wildcard in the politics of abortion as we go into the 2008 election season.

The 2 1/2-hour films takes a stark look at all sides of the issue, and includes actual footage of abortion procedures that Tony Kaye, the director, filmed himself; and jail house interviews with convicted murderers of doctors who have performed abortions -- and much, much more. It took Kaye more than $6 million of his own money and more than 16 years to make. Every review I have read has found it very compelling. A longer TV version is said to be under consideration, and the Sundance Channel has purchased the rights.

One antiabortion leader is already freaked out about it, and I imagine that there will be people in all camps who will also be variously freaked-out, in part because control of the debate may slip away.  Sure, all sides will have their talking points in response to the film, and will actively contend for how people perceive it. But it is also true that this film will change, for better or worse, the way people talk about the subject when out of the earshot and control of spin doctors and political professionals. Director Tony Kaye sought to be scrupulously even-handed about the subject, and reviewers think he has come as close as anyone humanly can on this inherently volatile subject. But that very even handedness is the wild card. It is a powerful film by all accounts -- and Kaye is a total iconoclast.    

As it happens, abortion in film is being much discussed these days, mostly because the subject makes huge entertainment conglomerates queasy; and that there are "prolife" themes in some recent Hollywood films, notably Knocked Up.  Sandra Kobrin writes at Women's eNews.

Most 20- to 30-year-old men I know are not afraid to say abortion. I have two sons in their 20s who saw [Knocked Up] and were surprised by the silence on abortion, given the elements of the plot. They were also surprised by the fearful use of the "A" word.

Plenty of women in this country are also having abortions and going to lengths to combat the stigma of silence, as the subjects wearing "I had an abortion" T-shirts in Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgartner's 2005 documentary film "I Had an Abortion" attest.

Approximately 1.29 million abortions were performed in the United States in 2002, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Half of all pregnancies by U.S. women are unintended; 4 in 10 of these end in abortion.

But you'd never believe these figures it if you watched Hollywood films, which are spreading the impression that abortion, if the subject comes up, can be treated as the evil "A" word.

Outside of the United States, things are different.

This year, a Romanian film whose main topic is abortion won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The Boston Globe also recently ran a feature story about abortion in cinema, offering a thoughtful and knowledgable overview of the subject -- including a discussion of Lake of Fire that from the reviewer's angle, suggests part of why the film will change everything.

Are we at a fulcrum in the pop discourse? Is Hollywood backing away from Roe v. Wade? Probably not, since the matter has more to do with the studios' terror of giving offense than active sermonizing. Yet there the films are, and in the fall will come "Lake of Fire," a documentary that stands to aggravate matters by offending just about everybody

Ah, but the film will far more than offend. It will inform, outrage, and ultimately change the way many people think and talk about the entire matter. I know that is a lot to say about a film in advance of its release, but there has never been a film like it, nor will have any documentary about the subject been seen by such a wide audience. It's a deliberately provocative film about a volatile subject at the center of American politics. The Globe writer contrasts Lake of Fire with the standard Hollywood fare, which is rarely very direct about the subject.

Ironically, one of the more honest accounts can be found in a teen comedy: 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," in which the freshman played by Jennifer Jason Leigh gets knocked up by a sleazeball (Robert Romanus ) who won't pay for half the abortion or even drive her to the clinic. There's a banal, ordinary sadness to these scenes and their aftermath -- a numbed sense of mistakes made and coped with out of sight of parents and friends.

A similar sensibility pervades Tony Kaye's "Lake of Fire," only it's real. Toward the end of this remarkable documentary, which is coming off the festival circuit to theaters in October, the director interviews a working-class woman minutes after she has had an abortion. The camera records her pose of tough resilience cracking from exhaustion, stress, and sadness.

The maverick director of "American History X " has made what may be the most honest film yet on the abortion wars. Appropriately, it's nearly unwatchable. It nevertheless demands to be seen by anyone who purports to hold an opinion on the subject, left, right, or center.

"Lake of Fire" shows abortion procedures and their grisly aftermath; the footage is distressing in the extreme and mitigated only slightly by the use of black and white film.

Kaye interviews right-to-life extremists, letting their lunacy speak for itself. He locates Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade, now a born-again evangelical Christian and "reformed lesbian," and listens to her story. (In one of the great "reveals" in recent movies, Kaye slowly pulls his camera back from an interview with a right-to-life minister to show McCorvey working at the next desk over.)

"Lake of Fire," in other words, forces audiences to confront what abortion is and what it means to both women who have one and people who oppose it, and it does so in ways that are devastatingly fresh. If the film has a position, it appears to be both pro-life and pro-woman, equally aware of the humanity of a fetus and of the person carrying it.

That's a political paradox...

I hope that we can be well-ahead of the curve in thinking about this; prepared to have abortion come off of the political margins of the "safe, legal and rare" mantra of leading Democrats -- into an electorate informed by a far more emotional, and substantive discussion than has been had about these matters in years, and energized in ways that may be quite new, unpredictable, and certainly unprecedented.  We can reasonably expect that the religious right will be ready, after having gotten over the initial freak out.

are emerging as significant  sources of information and even social change. This film could very well be in that category.  Michael Moore's films have contributed hugely to changes in the national discourse. As has the documentary about McDonalds, Supersize Me.  

Jesus Camp has not had quite as huge an audience, but its impact has been considerable, and generated a tremendous amount of news coverage. It will likely do so again when the Academy Awards roll around.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Jun 21, 2007 at 01:18:14 PM EST

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