'Let It Be Law' ('Que Sea Ley'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Rousing filmmaking only goes so far.

This militant documentary by director Juan Solanas ('Upside Down') champions Argentina’s urgent need for an abortion law.

Filmed on the eve of an important vote in the Argentine parliament on a law designed to legalize abortion, Let It Be Law (Que Sea Ley) shows the impressive “green wave” of pro-choice supporters fighting for women’s right to abortion. Almost all of them are young women wearing big smiles of confidence, some protesting in Handmaid’s Tale bonnets, others with colorfully painted faces. Director Juan Solanas, best known for his Jim Sturgess-Kirsten Dunst venture into sci-fi, Upside Down, emphasizes the crowds of demonstrators as a cheerful counterweight to the many tragic cases of women who died because of illegal abortions or because they were denied treatment in hospitals after miscarriages.

Since abortion law is a hot topic in the U.S. and many other countries right now, this militantly pro-choice documentary should find its way to like-minded audiences after its bow as a special screening in Cannes. But beyond the choir, its cinema verité filming looks out-of-date and dulls the edge of its message considerably.

The film was sparked by a 2018 bill designed to decriminalize abortion and provide it free of charge in national clinics. As the film recounts, the bill narrowly passed in the Argentine lower house, but was defeated in the senate by six votes. Clearly the fight is not over (a similar bill is now making its way through Congress again) and although there is no triumphant ending for the film to celebrate, the struggle for women’s rights appears to be strong and thriving in Argentina, giving audiences something uplifting to take home.

Far more gripping than the familiar images of marches and slogans filmed on the streets in strident high contrast photography are the stories Let It Be Law recounts of poor women forced to resort to dangerous illegal abortions, often with tragic results. Stats say that a woman dies every week of a clandestine abortion in Argentina, and with more than a third of the population living below the poverty line, the drama of unwanted pregnancy often concerns women who already have large families they struggle to feed.

A cause célèbre is that of Ana Maria Acevedo, who was 19 and raising three children when she was diagnosed with jaw cancer. She was refused chemotherapy when doctors discovered she was a few weeks pregnant. An ethics committee made up of health professionals and Catholic church representatives ruled in favor of the fetus, and Ana Maria died along with it. This happened in spite of the current law allowing abortion when the mother’s life is in danger. Her mother, Norma, appears on camera demanding justice and asserting that her daughter was murdered.

Another case that has stirred outrage is that of a woman named Belen, who went to a public hospital bleeding heavily. Unaware of being pregnant, she discovered she was having a miscarriage. She was accused of having an illegal abortion, arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison for aggravated murder.

Solanas’ camera compassionately conveys the abject poverty of his subjects who live in the slum-like barrios or in hastily built one-room cement houses in the desolate countryside. He also includes sound bites from a range of professional women — doctors, lawyers, activists and members of parliament who reinforce the filmmaker’s own strong point of view. Tech work aims to capture the heat and excitement of the political moment, but the feeling remains of watching a doc made for TV.

Production companies: Les Films du Sud, Cinesur, Gameland
Director, screenwriter, editor: Juan Solanas
Producers: Victoria Solanas, Juan Solanas
Director of photography: Juan Solanas
Music: Paula Moore
World sales: Wild Bunch
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (special screening)
86 minutes