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SXSW 2014—Day 8: Vessel
From 'Vessel'

This week is the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, and we're lucky enough to have updates from the festival every day.You can read previous updates from days one, two, three, four,five, six, and seven.

Vessel, directed by Diana Whitten

Film festivals tend to skew to the left.

If there is an environmental film or two—and there are usually a couple—they tend to be green. If there is a GLBTQ film or two—SXSW has The Case Against 8 and a Kehinde Wiley short—they tend to be celebratory. If there is an abortion film, it is usually pro-choice.

There are reasons for that, and they are not all about media bias, which I tend to think of as a rich man's lament. But it is worth considering that Janet Pierson, head of SXSW film, introduced Vessel by telling the audience that there were eight hundred and ninety-two submissions for eight slots in the documentary feature competition. The winner of the jury prize went to The Great Invisible, an environmental film about the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and its aftereffects. Vessel received "Special Jury Recognition for Political Courage."

Neither are bad films, but if you suspect they were awarded because of their subject matter rather than the artful or effective way they present it, you won't get much argument from me.

Vessel is Diana Whitten's chronicle of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts of The Netherlands. She founded Women on Waves, an organization that was designed to utilize international maritime laws to allow her to perform abortions at sea for women who lived in areas where such procedures are (or were) illegal. When the vessel met with resistance, her strategy changed to disseminating information directly to women in these countries about how they could induce abortions by taking a prescription drug for off label use.

Abortion is a polarizing issue, so films about it tend to be directed towards those who are already on either pole. This means that those who think the issue is complex and/or intertwined with other issues may feel as demonized as those on the other end of pole from the filmmaker or film's subject.

I admit I am not the most sympathetic listener for Whitten's film, but I don't think I am the most unsympathetic either. I was there. I was listening. I wanted to hear what Dr. Gomperts had to say.

What she had to say to one man on Portuguese television is that men "should not talk about this issue" because they always have the choice of "walking away" from an unwanted pregnancy. What she said to one of her hosts in Ecuador who expressed reservations about appropriating the statue of the Virgin of Panecillo by hanging a banner with an abortion hotline number on it was that bad press does not exist. What she said to her co-workers is that "you always have to have an offensive strategy." What she said through Women on Web and her volunteer training is that women who induce their own abortion should seek medical attention if the drug isn't effective, but they should be careful to lie to their medical providers when doing it, so that they don't get arrested.

The film claims that the recommended drug is effective "over 80%" of the time. I was not a math major, but that sounds to me like approximately one in six abortions initiated using this procedure are ineffective. Taking the estimate from Gomperts's own organization of 95,000 clandestine abortions per year in Ecuador alone, that sounds like the potential for thousands of dangerous complications arising from the distribution and use of the recommended drug.

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SXSW 2014—Day 8: Vessel