Tracy Droz Tragos works to get beyond us-versus-them simplicity in Abortion: Stories Women Tell, focusing on personal narrative over politics in a humanistic look at an issue that promises to remain divisive for the foreseeable future. Continuing legal battles over access to abortion make the picture’s geographical focus timely: Here in Missouri, just one clinic is left that performs abortions, and legislators keep creating hurdles like a 72-hour waiting period for those seeking the procedure. The picture shows what a hardship these laws are for women while also spending time with those who think no hardship is too much; while its many-shades-of-gray approach is not new, it will be an eye-opener for many viewers on cable.
Settling into one community affords Tragos the chance to single out some characters, like “Chi Chi,” the clinic’s take-no-guff security officer, or Kathy, the pro-life activist who believes God was telling her to get in the middle of the Planned Parenthood/abortion debate because her middle name, Ann, is in the middle of “Planned.” As in Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s 12th & Delaware (also an HBO doc), the helmer does a good job conveying the tense atmosphere on the sidewalks surrounding this clinic, where volunteer escorts accompany patients past the protesters who loudly beg them not to end their pregnancies.
But the focus here is more on talking to those patients and those who’ve been in their shoes, finding some outliers — like Sarah, who was told by doctors that the child she was carrying was so deformed it had no chance to live after birth — among the more familiar cases, like the 30-year-old single mother of two who works 70-90 hours a week and knows she can’t support a third baby.
Tragos keeps an eye out for nuanced positions: the college pro-lifer who thinks it’s “horrible” that others on her side shout at clinic visitors or hold banners with graphic photos of destroyed fetuses; the clinic nurse who sings “Jesus Loves Me” along with a protester, and resents being caricatured as an unbeliever. But the doc isn’t as committed to exploring philosophical and moral debates as Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire.
Instead, it puts as many first-person stories in front of us as possible — so many, in fact, that each gets too little screen time to fully engage us. The idea being, it seems, that the public discussion of abortion suffers from the shame-based silence of those who have intimate experience with it. It may be hard to believe, at this point in the debate, that many minds can be changed by hearing stories such as these. But hearing them certainly makes it harder to caricature or dismiss women who seek abortion as if they all fit one mold.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Production company: Dinky Pictures
Director-producer: Tracy Droz Tragos
Executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Directors of photography: Kamau Bilal, Judy Phu
Editors: Christopher Roldan, Monique Zavistovski, Dan Duran
Composer: Nathan Halpern
Not rated, 93 minutes