This weekend, one of the most important movies of the year opens in limited release. The film is called "After Tiller," and while it's certainly going to get a lot of heat for its controversial subject matter, it's still a documentary that you should seek out, no matter what side of the abortion debate you're on.
The title of the film comes from George Tiller, a doctor who was murdered in 2009 for providing late-term abortions. The movie follows the four remaining doctors in the United States who still offer these services. These four doctors are from different walks of life, and they don't take their jobs lightly -- they understand the importance of the service they're providing but refuse to be grandiose about it. They're far from ideologues or zealots. In their minds, they're simply doctors offering a service, one that few people can get these days.
There are people who are going to automatically hate "After Tiller" even without watching it, because they're so profoundly offended by the content and/or the services these doctors provide. While people are entitled to their opinions, it would be a shame if they never gave the movie a chance -- critics may be surprised to learn how evenhanded the film is.
Although the doc is told from the perspectives of these doctors, the filmmakers certainly don't shy away from the grim realities of what a late-term abortion entail. This is a painful, difficult procedure, both medically and emotionally; there is no attempt at sugarcoating. As the directors explained to us, "After Tiller" is not a strictly pro-choice or pro-life movie.
"We didn't want to preach to the [pro-choice] choir here," co-director Lana Wilson said. "We wanted it to reach a broad audience. It's from the doctors' perspective so we don't delve a lot of time going into the anti-abortion movement. But we wanted them to be treated fairly, rather than make them these crazy, cartoonish villains. And there have been a lot of people who have come up to us after screenings and said, 'I'm anti-abortion but I didn't realize how complicated it was.' We made a movie we hope would make people, on either side, think more deeply."
Martha Shane, the other director, added: "I think what really allowed us to make a movie that would appeal to people on both sides of the issue is how nuanced the doctors' own views are on the work that they're doing. They see the complexity of this more than anyone. It's not a black-and-white issue. And the patients who come to these doctors aren't radical liberals. A lot of them might consider themselves pro-life and never expected to find themselves in this situation."
The film also explores the assessment that gets applied for each late-term case. The women (or, sadly, sometimes girls) who need the procedure have to talk to the doctor beforehand about their reasons for having it. Oftentimes it's because some horrifying abnormality has been detected way too late. In one scene, the camera watches, unblinkingly, as a young pregnant woman tearfully describes the life her child would have if it were to be born, and how hard that life would be.
Other times, the procedure is denied to women. "Sometimes they say 'no.' I think a stereotype is 'How can you walk in a day before you're supposed to have your baby?' And that just doesn't happen," Wilson said. The debate is touchy and complicated and the documentary explores a wide array of those complexities in frank, honest ways.
The movie's lack of single-mindedness -- its dogged refusal to be an "issue" movie -- is what makes it so powerful. As the title suggests, it's a movie about people. It's a measured and affecting piece of work that it will most likely spawn debate, but the kind of civil, mindful debate that could make those on either side a little bit more enlightened.
"We've definitely had positive feedback from the pro-choice side and have been glad people have been willing to talk about the issue, or aren't afraid of it. Third-trimester abortions are not traditionally an issue that the pro-choice movement feels comfortable talking about, so it's nice to see them embrace the film," Wilson said. "And we've also had a lot of anti-abortion people come up to us at film festivals and said, 'We didn't realize it was like this.' There's a huge lack of information and misinformation about this issue."