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'Lake of Fire' Looks at the Abortion Debate: Assessing Tony Kaye's New Film

By Michael Rose

After watching the news about a Springfield, Missouri abortion clinic that was about to close last week because it finally lost a long legal battle against a new state law that requires abortion providers to obtain hospital privileges within 30 miles of their clinics or face charges punishable by up to 15 years in prison, I sat down to watch Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire. His new abortion-themed documentary is being billed as the "definitive work on the subject of abortion."

This busy commercial and music video director spent 16 years and over $6 million of his own money making this 152-minute film. I expected this would be a comprehensive exploration of the many issues that have allowed the abortion question to fester 34 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v Wade that the right to privacy includes a woman's right to choose an abortion.

I invited two former members of the national board of the National Organization for Woman (NOW) to watch the film with me. Carol King (my wife), the chair of NOW's first abortion task force, later went on to serve on the board of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and was the executive director of the organization's Michigan affiliate. Mary Jo Walsh, a clinical social worker by training, served on NOW's board and has been a Catholic all her life. She feels she represents mainstream religious viewpoints. "It's important to tell people that we don't walk in lockstep," says Walsh.

In some ways this film is similar to Kaye's debut feature film, American History X, where he focuses on the extremes in an American sub-culture. In Lake of Fire, we're introduced to the Christian extremists in the anti-abortion movement, whose clinic bombings and shootings were making headlines 17 years ago when Kaye came to America from England. He was attracted to these outsiders. "It was that time when clinics were being attacked and there were all kinds of riots," Kaye recalls. "It led me to the whole abortion issue. There didn't seem to be an all-encompassing film--not that I've achieved that. But that's what I set out to do."

To say the film was a let-down to my small invited audience would be an understatement. I spoke to Kaye by phone about their reactions and his reasons for producing this film.

Part of Kaye's film follows Paul Hill, John Salvi, Michael Griffin and Eric Rudolph, who augment their anti-abortion speech-making with acts of violence that include clinic bombings and the murder of doctors. While most anti-abortion protests were disruptive but not violent, Kaye chose to focus on these particular characters without delving deeply into their lives. We see them making inflammatory, hateful speeches, see the results of their attacks and are present when they're finally tried. Unlike Deliver Us From Evil, where director Amy Berg takes us into the life of a pedophile priest on the lam in Ireland, Kaye's film never allows us to be anything but voyeurs to a series of spectacles.

"An extreme character is a very compelling one to watch," Kaye explains. "When one edits, one selects the most interesting thing. That was why those choices were made; the concept at the beginning was to have it all as a war of words."

Words we get. The aforementioned usual suspects from the fringes of the Christian Right weigh in with their exhortations about the evils of abortion, homosexuality, Bill and Hillary Clinton (the film was largely shot in the 1990s) and other hot-button issues that make up the witches brew of interrelated beliefs that is now being called Dominionism.

For counterpoint, Kaye turns to Noam Chomsky, known for his views about US foreign policy and economics; noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff; and civil libertarian lawyer Alan Dershowitz, an outspoken critic of the religious right but who's best known for his defense of Claus von Bülow, O.J. Simpson, Michael Milken and Mike Tyson. The talking head experts share a common denominator: They're white men.

"I'm a big fan of Noam Chomsky," Kaye admits. "I'm a massive fan of Alan Dershowitz. And they don't say too much, actually. It's just I think it's such an awesome power to what they do actually say, it seems to overshadow a lot of other things."

Kaye does interview some women experts, such as Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL; Frances Kissling, of Catholics for Choice; and Sarah Weddington, who argued Roe v Wade in front of the Supreme Court, but he uses very little, comparatively, of what they have to say. There are a host of other prominent women that we don't hear from, such as Gloria Steinem; author Katha Pollitt; author Barbara Ehrenrich; Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood; Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation; and others who would have weighed in on an issue that certainly affects women more than men.

Finally, after many long minutes of hectoring from nut-case preachers and stuffy white-bread pontificators, we hear from a group of women who've had abortions. But we only see the back of their heads, lending the impression that they're ashamed of what they've done.

"I don't know that they were ashamed," Kaye maintains. "They didn't want their faces seen, but they were happy to do an off-screen interview. I said, ‘Well, let me just shoot with the back of your head, please,' and they said fine. I thought that would be visually interesting."

One of the most graphic parts of the film shows a tray of fetal body parts, following what is described as a 20-week, or second trimester, abortion, but the impression is made that this array of tissue is normally found after any abortion. In fact, 88 percent of all abortions are first trimester abortions, which do not result in dramatic images of large pieces of developed tissue. A little bit later, we see the aftermath of a first trimester abortion as a gloppy mess, but without the lingering close-ups.

We never understand the context for the first abortion scene, or for most second trimester abortions. "I think the shockingness of that scene is that it's not presented by a pro-lifer; it's presented by somebody who is pro-choice," Kaye explains. "And I think that this is the invisible irony of that; it makes that scene beyond huge."

While we're looking at the tray of body parts, the woman being interviewed about late-term abortions says, "Just as you said, Tony, when you look into it--the medical gestational facts-there is no argument that can justify that."

"When I was talking to her, I said that, because I believe that's absolutely right," Kaye maintains. "I believe that there's nothing that can justify a late term abortion. I also believe it's absolutely right that a woman should have absolute power to choose what she does with her body. And there should be a clinic there that will provide a safe and comfortable place, and clean, where she can have an abortion. Therein lies the confusion. That's my confusion that didn't really change after 16 years."

This seems like a logical place to cut to someone who could make an argument for this procedure and maybe clear up any confusion. She might have said, for example, that amniocentesis is not accurate until the second trimester, when Down's Syndrome, Trisomy 18, spinal bifida and other fetal anomalies are detected-which leads some women to choose to abort.

"There are some very serious reasons why woman opt to terminate second trimester pregnancies," Carol King explains. "This is an unfair depiction of a situation that is far more complicated than how it's represented."

Another memorable moment in the film occurs when we meet an all-woman punk band/performance troupe. The lead singer is wearing what looks like gaffer's tape pasties and bikini briefs. She masturbates with a coat hanger, then licks it. Then she's interviewed about the issue. It wasn't clear if these women were there for their expertise, for shock value or as an equivalent counterpoint to the Christian Fundamentalists.

"They were in the film because she'd written a song about an abortion, and I shot it," Kaye explains. "It just seemed to work very, very well there, and to see the opposing ends of the spectrum."

King counters, "While they are extreme in their stage antics, they don't get any publicity about their views on the issue, and they haven't tried to push through any legislation or taken part in the debate in any meaningful way beyond what's depicted in the film."

"Surprisingly, 70 percent of women obtaining abortions identify themselves as Christian," Mary Jo Walsh adds. "This is an issue that clearly affects a large number of mainstream women in this country."

"It's a subject that merits serious discussion about the realities of woman's lives and the implications of public policy and foreign policy decisions on woman's lives," King points out. "This is not something that should be exploited in a superficial survey, especially one that ignores women and women's views."

"I set out to make something that would cause a discourse about the subject, further discourse about the subject," Kaye explains. "I think it will do that. I've become a better filmmaker now than I was when I began. Did I make exactly the film that I set out to make? Probably not."

Lake of Fire, distributed through THINKFilm, opens in New York, October 3 and in Los Angeles, October 12.

Michael Rose is a former IDA Board member.