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REPOST Sunance Journals, Part 2: "12th and Delaware," seeking common ground while honoring the Prime Directive

REPOST: I saw this film at Sundance in January and did a post about it at that time. I'm reposting it today because the show is premiering on HBO tonight. The blog's been quiet for the past week while I've been at the Sundance Film Festival meeting with funders and broadcasters and getting amazing inspiration from the films here. This is the second of three reports from the festival.

While I was a Sundance, I had the chance to see one of the first screenings of the documentary 12th and Delaware by filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (who made the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp).

The film is about the Ft. Pierce, Florida intersection that gives the film its title - and what goes on in the two small buildings on either side of the street. On one side is an abortion clinic, and on the other side is a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) which exists for one reason: talking women out of having an abortion at that clinic. In the middle are the mostly lower-income women who are pregnant, don't want to be, and are looking for help. Like Jesus Camp, the film is totally verité (they film it like they see it with no talking heads or commentary) and they have access to communities many of us won't encounter for ourselves.

The film creates an astonishing intimacy with all its characters, and Heidi and Rachel got remarkable access behind closed doors on both sides of the street, most powerfully with the women seeking abortions. You need great skill, sensitivity and perseverance to tell this kind of story.

The filmmakers said the people on both sides who saw the finished film thought it was fair. In fact, a lot has been written about how balanced this film is, how it presents the facts and lets you sort through the politics and realities of the abortion debate. That's a beautiful concept, but in the real world what is there to sort? As the filmmakers themselves have said, there's absolutely no common ground here.

If you believe abortion is murder, you will applaud everything done in this film to stop it: tricking women into coming into your CPC thinking they're at the abortion clinic, lying to them about how far along their pregnancies are to get them to postpone their abortions until it's too late, showing women grisly videos of procedures which have nothing to do with a standard first-trimester abortion, presenting dis-proven science and statistics, and providing a steady stream of harassment to anyone entering the abortion clinic. All under the supervision and guidance of the local Catholic priest, and done in the name of God.

If you're pro-choice and you believe a woman should have access to both safe, legal abortion – and judgement-free and accurate information about it, watching this film will be excruciating. You'll also be filled with dread hoping nothing happens to the doctor who is brought in to perform abortions with a sheet over his head to protect his identity (this film was made shortly after the murder of Dr. George Tiller).

Although the filmmakers remained fairly dispassionate at the Sundance post-screening Q&A, in an interview with Kenneth Turan of the LA Timesthey talked about the difficulty they had in making this film:

" took Grady and Ewing a year and a half to gain access to a facility. Then it took a year of filming to get the job done, a year that the filmmakers, who call 12th and Delaware "that miserable corner," say was the most difficult and challenging of their careers.

Initially, the film was to be only about the CPC, and Grady and Ewing make being there sound like combat. "It was excruciating," says Ewing, "like Lars von Trier had assigned us to make a Dogme film on this corner for a year."

Adds Grady, "It was banality and flashes of total emotional drama, flashes that would send you to the moon."

The experience was especially difficult because of the fragile emotional state of the women – often teenagers – who came into the CPC.

"Honestly, that was the hardest thing for us as two women," Grady says. "We really had to be objective and watch extremely vulnerable women not get comforted, not get relief. That wasn't our role, but it hurt."

In the same interview, Rachel Grady said the anti-abortion forces:

"are winning the hearts-and-minds campaign. Abortion is still legal, but there's a huge taboo about it. Who cares if it's legal if no doctor will train to do it?"

This film raised another issue for me that hasn't been really discussed: What is the responsibility of the filmmaker to its subjects when those subjects may be in harm's way? Is there a 'Prime Directive' for documentary filmmakers?

[Spoiler alert!] In the course of the film, the abortion doctor is followed and identified. Do the filmmakers have a responsibility to let him know this has happened? In the Q&A at Sundance, they said they didn't get involved because they didn't feel he was in danger.

When a thirteen-year-old is manipulated out of having an abortion, should the filmmakers tell her the truth? Said Rachel in the LA Times interview:

"I would just be dying, these girls were in so much pain, I felt like a traitor because I couldn't do anything about it."

This is the most frustrating thing about this film. The filmmakers commitment to pure verité means they never got involved in any way. I wanted to scream at the screen to this young girl and many others: The people at the CPC are lying to you!!

[Spoiler alert!] For me, one of the toughest scenes showed this now-very-pregnant and resource-less thirteen-year-old saying she hopes she gets some help with the baby she's decided to keep. I couldn't help wondering, as perhaps she did, if the staff of the CPC would have as much interest in her living baby as they did in her fetus. Later in the film, a single mother of six is offered all sorts of financial help if she calls off her abortion and has her 7th child. The filmmakers said in the Sundance Q&A that aside from getting the money for the deposit she paid for her abortion, none of the promised help was ever given by the CPC.

Being pro-choice means supporting a woman's right to choose to have or not have an abortion based on her own beliefs and opinions. Making abortion illegal, something the folks at the CPC pray for, won't make for less abortions. Only less safe abortions. Rachel Grady says the abortion debate:

"has nothing to do with babies. Its about control, it's about the power of women and women's roles, what the purpose of the female gender is, the absolute core of the identity of a woman. It's so profound and so deep."

And at the end of the day, there is no common ground and no end to this war where poor young women keep getting caught up in the cross-fire. FirstShowing did an interview with the filmmakers at Sundance:

If you can't see it, click here. Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! did a great interview with the filmmakers here.

Sundance Journals, Part 1 (way more upbeat!) is here and Part 3 is here.