In a world of media and news overload, some stories grab you and plenty of others that should get your attention slip away instead. The pained re-ignition of the seemingly insolvable abortion debate following the heinous murder of Kansas late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller grabbed me, though I've been disappointed by the tenor of so much I've read and heard.
What I've found rattling and at times revolting about the rhetoric of anti-abortion-rights advocates from Operation Rescue's Randall Terry to Fox News talking head Bill O'Reilly isn't their fundamental anti-abortion position, which I respect and find ultimately rational; it's the utter unwillingness to acknowledge — much less sympathize with — the tragic circumstances that bring women and families to the question of whether to terminate a pregnancy, especially one late in the gestation period, which is often a wanted pregnancy stricken by severe complications.
For a civil and serious take on this issue, I've turned to The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan's terrific blog for Atlantic Monthly. Sullivan is a Christian, self-described conservative, and has expressed an opposition to the legality of late-term abortions that he is starting to second-guess. Over the past few days, he's opened a significant portion of his blog space to a detailed, open-minded discussion of the issues surrounding late-term abortion, letting people tell their own stories in a series of anguished but illuminating "It's So Personal" posts that are gripping, essential reading, and allowing space for readers to dissent from both ends of the abortion debate.
Another oasis of cultural seriousness amid the noise is Lake of Fire, a colossal 2006 documentary from British filmmaker Tony Kaye (American History X) that deserves renewed attention in the wake of Tiller's assassination. Kaye shot his film (on black-and-white celluloid) over the course of 18 years, winnowing his material down to a two-and-a-half-hour epic that nobody saw.
The film got minimal theatrical distribution (it never played Memphis) and just missed the Oscar nomination that might have given it a boost. It seems clear that Lake of Fire suffered by going against the grain of recent political documentaries, which have tended to preach to the converted. In the Bush years, especially, filmgoers have generally embraced documentaries that back up what they already think, not films that challenge their beliefs.
Lake of Fire treats both sides of the abortion debate fairly, and was thus not embraced by any of the issue's combatants. The film showcases protesters on both sides, doctors, ministers, politicians, clinic administrators, advocates, and, most importantly, patients. It doesn't shy away from graphic material, including an abortion happening live on camera — with live commentary from the doctor washing the removed fetal material. Kaye isn't trying to make a political point with this any more than he is with a graphic photo of a woman who bled to death from a self-given abortion or evidence from the murder scenes of assassinated abortion providers. He's just marshaling relevant information and presenting it to the viewer.
The actual Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey, recounts her transformation into an anti-abortion activist. Academic Noam Chomsky speaks eloquently about the conflicting but perhaps equally legitimate values on both sides. Most compelling may be friends Alan Dershowitz and Nat Hentoff. Legal scholar Dershowitz recounts his own pro-choice views being shaken by his fatherhood, asserting, almost helplessly, "Everybody is right when it comes to the issue of abortion." Longtime cultural and political critic Hentoff confounds the religious prism through which abortion-rights opponents tend to view the debate. Hentoff is a civil libertarian and an atheist who is against abortion rights. He thinks an abortion is the taking of a life, and doesn't need the Bible to reach that conclusion.
Kaye has said that, even after making this film, he still hasn't sorted his own conflicted feelings on abortion — a statement that I and lots of other citizens can no doubt identify with. And that's the strength of the film. If there's any clear position asserted by Lake of Fire, it's one voiced by one of the young women early in the film, shown with her back to the camera, talking about her abortion, and one which summarizes the testimony Sullivan has heroically collected on The Daily Dish: "This is a hard decision to make."
Lake of Fire is available at Black Lodge Video and, presumably, via Netflix. I don't know if other DVD/video stories in the Memphis area carry it.
Here is Lake of Fire's official trailer, which barely hints at the range and heft of the film: