If you're going to make a documentary on abortion, you could be pretty certain of two things:
It will be controversial and, simultaneously...ironically...
...it will be largely ignored.
Such was the case with Tony Kaye's black and white 2006 offering Lake Of Fire, a film I first saw at the Toronto International Film Festival and one which I decided to return to recently. In spite of great critical success, the film basically found no audience upon it's limited release.
It's also easy enough to figure out the landscape of such a film and the issues/topics that would emerge:
Secularism, religion, fundamentalism, women's rights, Biblical doctrine, birth control, adoption, tolerance, intolerance, snobbery, fanaticism, sex education, abstinence, feminism, traditional roles, alternative lifestyles, liberalism, conservatism, clinics, bombings...and folks on both sides becoming very passionate.
When it comes time to ask if a film like this was "good", what in effect being asked is:
-was the documentary informative and...
-was it balanced and fair in it's presentation of both sides?
On the first matter, I would say that much of the ground covered is familiar to most - Roe v. Wade, after all, made history. The faith-based arguments are well known. So are the ones from the pro-choice side. We have all heard numbers as to the frequency of abortions that take place, actions that some would regard as murder. We have all heard about the attacks on clinics, the personnel who work in them, and the number of doctors performing the procedure who were killed, which some would regard as justified. We have all heard of the arguments regarding lower income women being forced into back alleys, while the well-off will always have the means to safely procure the procedure when desired, regardless of what the law would say. We have all heard about the case being made for adoption as an alternative, as well as for birth control as a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. To a great extent the film supplies these familiar points in abundance. Most of the arguments are presented by predictable sources (including many "name" commentators, like Noam Chomsky and Pat Buchanan) but there are some surprises: Nat Hentoff, the atheist civil libertarian whose views generally fall on the left side of the political spectrum, is heard describing his reasons for being pro-life. On the other hand, a spokesperson introduces the viewer to an organization known as Catholics For Choice. There are no lack of opinions to be expressed as the film, while visually stunning, is very much a talking heads experience (to a fault, as much of this two and a half hour long movie seems unnecessarily repetitive, with several points and similar situations given more than one airing).
As far as balance goes, many have suggested that Kaye has been as fair as possible in allowing both sides their expression. Some pro-lifers seem to feel otherwise, suggesting that the more radical religious fundamentalist spokespeople do not represent the civil and articulate positions that they say are out there for their cause. Others argue that is just the way most of the pro-lifers comes across, with fire and brimstone speeches assuring the other side that they are doomed to burn in hell, in a "lake of fire". But there could be a case made that some will view the pro-choice spokespeople as representing the intellectual elite looking down their noses at the other faction. Interesting that most of the prominent voices in the film on either side of the issue belong to men.
For all of it's chattiness, there are two visually powerful sequences, both involving abortions being performed, that many would find disturbing. So...be warned.
But more than anything else, after the back and forth yelling, after witnessing the actual procedures...the thing I will always remember and be mesmerized by is watching and listening to two women.
One is Norma McCorvey..."Jane Roe" herself, first describing her status as an unmarried pregnant woman and the turmoil that resulted from the proceedings from her stand (including a suicide attempt), then her subsequent conversion to the pro-life organization Operation Rescue. The other is a woman near the film's conclusion who is followed as she goes through the various steps leading up to the abortion she has decided she must have. Regardless of what one thinks of the decisions they have made, in one direction or another, the emotional whirlwind these two take the viewer through is staggering and gut-wrenching.
Kaye spent nearly two decades putting this film together and it's an admirable effort in many ways. With the second viewing the long running time was a little more bothersome and I didn't need the sweeping strings of the musical score to come in as often as they did. Still, it's worthwhile for the experience it is -a project that probably won't change the opinions of those strongly dedicated to their cause on either side but, for the rest, open minds would benefit by hearing both camps. Regardless, it serves as an astounding record of what the abortion debate has been like. (It will be interesting to see how the new film After Tiller, focusing on the subject of late-term abortions, is received.)
I say this film tastes - POWERFUL.