Friday, November 02, 2007

Unborn in the USA

Unborn in the USA
A new documentary lives up to its claim of taking a fair, objective view of the prolife movement. We talked to the filmmakers.
by Mark Moring | posted 10/30/07

We recently reviewed a documentary, Lake of Fire, whose filmmakers claimed to have made an objective movie about abortion, allegedly giving a fair depiction of both sides of the debate. But the movie depicted prolifers as crazy fanatics and prochoicers as reasonable, well-mannered intellectuals.

But now along comes another documentary, Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion, that is not only fair and objective, but focuses solely on the prolife movement. The 101-minute film does depict some radicals—including those who advocate bombing abortion clinics and killing abortion providers—but for the most part, it depicts level-headed, intelligent movers and shakers in the prolife movement.

Stephen Fell and Will Thompson began making the movie five years ago as a class project at Rice University, a project that ended up taking four years, travels to 35 states, and more than 70 interviews. The result is arguably the most objective and fair-minded documentary yet of the prolife movement.

CT Movies interviewed Fell and Thompson, whose film released to DVD last week.

How did this film grow from a mere student project into a full-fledged film?

Will Thompson: We were taking a course at Rice University on Documentary Production. The first project was to do a portrait on an individual. Stephen and I were looking for an interesting person, and there was a man, this anti-abortionist, near where I'd grown up in Cyprus, Texas. He had set up what he called a "cemetery to the innocent," and we'd never seen a display like it before. It was a thousand blue and pink crosses, and …

Stephen Fell: And he put billboards up amongst the signs with messages from aborted fetuses to their parents: I wouldn't have eaten that much, Mom. Or, Do you want to go play catch, Dad? Oh wait, you killed me. It was some obnoxious stuff, and we were thinking whoever put that up there would be pretty loopy and make for a good little short film. And when we met him, he was actually pretty normal guy, and he felt this was the only way he could express himself. To us, that was incredibly fascinating—just the lengths different people were going to express their prolife views in contemporary society.

Thompson: Then he was like, "Let me put you in touch with some people if you're really interested in learning about the prolife movement. Let me help put you in touch with some people who I think are really making changes."

Fell: That was when we were 20, and I just turned twenty-five. So most of our adult life just circled around making this project.

And where did you go from there?

He introduced us to Elizabeth Graham at Texas Right to Life. And that's where we learned about a lot of the legislative policy changes that the local and state-level right-to-life organizations were working on. And then our research expanded to a national scale.

Fell: We took the class into a second semester, and at that point, we went to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. When we went there, we thought there would be a lot of other journalists and filmmakers there covering it. But we were practically the only people there; it was a huge event, but nobody was really covering it. We weren't seeing it in the news or in the newspapers. And we just really felt like there was an opportunity there to tell a story that hadn't been told before.

Before you started working on this film, what were your impressions of the prolife movement?

Thompson: I'd grown up in a pretty conservative community, but I don't think I would have said I was either prolife or prochoice. I just didn't feel educated enough, and I had never been indoctrinated either way. My parents had never really explained the issue to me in a way where they expected me to have a certain opinion. Stephen and I had been brought up in a Roe v Wade world, but I never really had any extreme opinions on the issue. So it was a learning experience.

The prolife movement has often been portrayed in the media as a bunch of fanatics who want to kill abortionists and burn down clinics, but you guys …

Fell: Can I chime in here?


Fell: One thing I think is interesting about the process of making our film is that we wanted to find that stereotype. We knew we wanted the Army of God [a radical anti-abortion movement that hails abortionist killer Paul Hill as a "hero"] in the film, because we knew that stereotype is what a lot of people think of. But with our film, now you can see them in context of the rest of the prolife movement.

Did either of your attitudes or opinions change during the making of this film?

Thompson: Yeah, mine did. I wouldn't say my mind changed, but it opened up a lot. When you cover the prolife movement for four years, it got a lot easier to sympathize with everyone's viewpoint. When you spend enough time with people who are so passionate about something, whether you agree or disagree, if you study their passion, you begin to empathize a little more with them. That's definitely what happened with me.

And you, Stephen?

Fell: I came into it pretty confused about the issue, and I left the project pretty confused about the issue still. But what I came away with was that people on both sides of the issue think that what they're doing is right. And I think there's value in that.

A lot of these prolifers—even those who seem like very kind, reasonable people—are using graphic images of aborted babies, and you illustrate that throughout your film. What were your thoughts on that practice?

Fell: It's interesting. If you take a picture of an aborted fetus out into the street, a lot of people would be really uncomfortable with that. But these people would say that no social movement has ever been successful in American history that didn't include visual representation of the victim. And I think that observation has a lot of weight to it.

The film quotes a guy from Justice for All who says that Jesus would use graphic images to get his point across, because he did just that with a gruesome, graphic crucifixion. What did you think of that argument?

Fell: People who spend their life taking these pictures into the public, they spend a lot of their time thinking about defending it. And one way they defend it is to say that Jesus would use a graphic image, because he already did. It's an interesting thought. And we kind of tie that thinking into Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ by using some images from that film in our documentary. It was just a little moment where we were trying to suggest that this is one reason why these people might form this opinion.

What sectors of the prolife movement do you think are working most effectively and persuasively of all the people you met and filmed?

Fell: This issue is something that a lot of college students are debating and thinking about, so I think the groups going to college campuses are really getting into a lot of interesting conversations and debate. So I would say that Justice for All and Missionaries to the Preborn are having success. You can't deny that.

Thompson: I think the most effective tool is sonograms at crisis pregnancy clinics. That's having a huge impact on the choices that women are making. At the Choices Clinic in Wichita [a pro-life clinic located next to Dr. George Tiller's famous abortion clinic], 98 percent of women who went in and see their sonogram decided to keep the baby, while 98 percent of the women who went into Tiller's clinic first decided to have an abortion. So for the Choices Clinic, it works in their favor if they can get to the woman first and let her see a sonogram.

I thought the Silent No More Awareness campaign, featured in your film, had a pretty effective message, coming from women who've had abortions.

Fell: The women in that group had powerful anecdotes about their experiences with abortion. When we asked prolifers who they looked up to, almost everyone cited Silent No More as a group that was making a lot of headway, really convincing a lot of people that the prolife message was really a good message. When we were in Washington and we saw those women's speeches, we were pretty blown away.

Thompson: One of the things the prolife movement's been criticized for is having a large percentage of male involvement on what most consider a women's issue. And here's Silent No More—here are women that women can connect to. So I think that has been instrumental in their success; it seems more representative of the kind of voices you want to hear speaking against abortion.

A lot of prochoice people think prolifers are only Christians. Did you guys meet any non-Christians along the way?

Fell: We wanted to test that hypothesis, that all prolifers are Christians. And we found a lot of groups that were of different religions, different perspectives. There was a Jewish prolife organization. There was a prolife alliance of gays and lesbians. We found a group called Feminists for Life. We did a lot of other groups like that as well.

It was interesting to us to meet with and video all these different groups, but in the end, it's predominantly a Christian influence in the prolife movement. And that's what we wanted to document.

What one individual in the prolife movement most impressed you?

Thompson: Matt Trewhella [of Missionaries to the Preborn], which is why at least a third of our film was about his group. And David Lee [of Justice for All], not just because of what he does on college campuses, but just his personality. Angry prochoice people will come to his display on campuses, and the next thing you know he's engaged them, no matter how rude they are, in exactly what they didn't want—a lengthy discussion of their views of abortion and theology and all these things. He's a really reasonable guy who knows how college students think. I think he has a little bit more propriety and tact, and he knows people aren't stupid. They know when they're being proselytized to, and they know when someone's trying to change their mind. He knows you can't treat people that way, but that you have to treat people like they're smart.

Who needs to see this film and why?

Fell: I would say everybody on both sides of the issue., which is generally a liberal online magazine, said in their review that everybody should see this film. And I think a lot of prolife groups are saying every American should see this film. So we felt that in trying to be objective, we felt like we really accomplished it to the point where everybody can get something out of it.

Thompson: One of the things this film will do is educate the viewer, about not just the subject of abortion, but more about the people involved in the movement. Of course the issue's always going to be interpreted in different ways, but this at least allows one group of people to explain themselves and be shown in an unbiased light, on their terms, so that anybody can understand where they're coming from.

It would have been easy to just profile the radicals and make all prolifers look bad, but you seemed to shoot for objectivity.

Fell: Trying to make an objective film on the issue of abortion, some people would say it's impossible. Some people would say it's impossible to even have a picture of an aborted fetus in a film. How could that film be objective on the issue of abortion? You can see the minefield that we were working through. And it was a constant conversation and debate between Will and myself to try to ride that objective line.

© 2007 Christianity Today International



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