Your job is to work with the filmmakers – in the case of After Tiller, producers/directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson – to assemble their footage into an effective narrative. It’s all about offering choices, and I’m sure some of those choices were difficult. You help shape the story, offer advice, but, ultimately, the final decisions are not yours to make. You need to trust that the people making these decisions know what’s best.
Unlike scripted films, documentaries aren’t typically “written” until all the footage has been compiled. It’s only after viewing the footage that the story is uncovered, pieced together by editing. Shane and Wilson relied on your expertise to guide them through the murky moral waters of the abortion debate to tell a part of the story that has so far been overlooked: that of the abortion provider.
Your advice to them: tell the truth.
There is nothing easy about After Tiller. Not the watching or the telling. With a topic as divisive as abortion – and, in this case, the highly controversial practice of late-term abortion (performed after 20 weeks) – trying to force the narrative onto common ground is more than impossible, it’s unnecessary. The abortion issue is more complicated than most people realize, but the truths After Tiller presents are simple: the four doctors still performing late-term abortions in the U.S. do so because they believe abortion is a healthcare issue, not a political or religious one.
The Tiller in After Tiller is Dr. George Tiller, a former member of the armed forces, an active Christian, and a late-term abortion practitioner in Kansas. After decades of threats, which included having his clinic bombed in 1985, and being shot in both arms in 1993, Dr. Tiller was murdered while attending church in 2009. The four remaining practitioners – Dr. Carhart in Nebraska, Dr. Hern in Colorado, and Dr. Robinson and Dr. Sella in New Mexico – considered him not just a colleague, but a mentor and a friend. There was no question about whether or not they would carry on with their respective practices following his murder. As hard as it is for many to believe, these doctors love what they do.
The film tracks along the prosaic Middle American landscapes of highways and strip malls, past churches and schools, past medical buildings. But once behind the doors of these doctor’s offices, After Tiller shows us a world few of us ever see. The camera captures the mundane internal goings-on: fluorescent lights flicker, paperwork is signed, phones ring. The only hint that these offices are different than your average GP’s is the Department of Justice letter taped to the front desk, with handwritten instructions on how to proceed should a member of staff receive threats.
We witness each doctor in counselling sessions with the women seeking their services. We don’t see the women’s faces. Instead, the camera focuses on the women’s hands as they fidget with tissues and gesture while describing the painful reasons they need to terminate their pregnancies. Late-term abortions make up less than 1% of all abortions performed in the U.S. (the majority of these are planned pregnancies in which severe foetal abnormalities are found after the 20th week). You and the filmmakers choose to focus on the doctor’s faces, wrought with concern and compassion for the unthinkable situations their patients are facing. We see the doctors comforting their patients, and listening, holding their hands, and often holding back tears themselves.
Dr. Robinson recalls working in a state where the woman is required to tell a compelling story to not one, but two separate doctors, in order to obtain an abortion. “And some women just aren’t good storytellers,” she says. As Dr. Hern counsels a rape victim, we see that his lapel button says, “Trust Women.” Dr. Sella admits that she struggles because she still thinks of them as babies, not mere tissue to be removed. As the film progresses, you show us how the issue gets even more convoluted as patients come in seeking abortions with perhaps less concrete reasons for ending their pregnancies. Some were in denial after sexual assault and waited too long, some are poor and had to work to afford abortions that were no longer viable by the time they had the funds. One is a devout Catholic teenager who was afraid to tell her parents before her pregnancy became obvious. Your decision to focus on these challenging narratives shows us just how multifaceted this issue is despite how simple the detractors aim to make it appear.
None of these doctors wanted to be political activists. They just want to help women. And they still grapple with ethical conundrums on a daily basis, all while keeping Dr. Tiller’s ethos at the forefront of their practices: that a woman’s body is smarter than a doctor.
The truth you encouraged Shane and Wilson to seek is the real hero of this story. Thank you for guiding its journey.