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.
Part of the community training includes practice sessions on how to lie to pharmacists about one's intended use, how to identify which pharmacies are most likely to distribute the drug without a prescription, and assurances that the drug is undetectable if they do seek medical treatment for complications. (It is recommended to such patients that they claim they had a miscarriage, since being honest might land them in jail.)
At one point, Gomperts hangs up a cell phone in Tanzania, turns to camera, and appears to say, "We're setting up a smuggling [transaction]."
One audience member asked how likely it would be that a desperate, pregnant woman might ignore the nine week limit recommended for the procedure and what would happen if she did. (Whitten said that limit was changed to twelve weeks after the film was made.) Given that Women on Web conduct "consultations" via e-mail and deliver pills through the mail, this question struck me as a reasonable one.
I kept waiting in vain for anyone in the film to answer (or even address) some of these questions. It's not that I think any of them are necessarily unanswerable, but the inability or unwillingness to engage in dialogue usually arouses my suspicion. Scientists in general and doctors in particular should strive to speak in facts, both when the facts support their recommendations and when they might be used to call them into question. At least they should when they want those recommendations to carry the weight that the title "doctor" usually confers on them.
All of which is to say that Vessel made me very uncomfortable, not because I categorically rejected most (or all) of Gomperts's argument but because I kept waiting for her (or the film) to articulate it. That—and I do fear the law of unintended consequences. When people on any side of any issue start thinking about how they can get around disliked laws rather than how they can change them, I find that scary.
Vessel is at its most effective when it is describing the scope of the issue. The film claims that one in three women worldwide will have an abortion sometime during their life. If that is the case, then prohibition is simply not an effective deterrent. The sooner we all start looking for solutions rather than victories, the better.
Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire is still probably the abortion documentary that I think is most likely to be watched a hundred years from now, but it is (in my opinion) intentionally neutral, and its "pox on all your houses" tone, while brutally honest, is suffocating in its depressing tone.
For those interested in an honest conversation about abortion, the best bet is probably Martha Shane's and Lana Wilson's After Tiller. Several of the abortion providers in that film express ambivalence or doubt about the procedure itself, and their (and the film's) willingness to acknowledge that the reasons a woman (or a couple) might want an abortion matter is in stark contrast to Gomperts's (somewhat naïve, in my opinion) seeming position that any restrictions on a medical procedure is a violation of human rights.
Then again, I'm just a man, so my opinion doesn't matter. After all, I get to walk away from an unwanted pregnancy. Gomperts said so.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.