A Thousand Shades of Gray


Andrew O'Hehir over at Salon has an extended overview of Tony Kaye's new three-hour plus documentary on the Abortion Wars of the 90s, Lake of Fire. Kaye, the contentious director of the Edward Norton flick, American History X, has created, according to O'Hehir, an abortion film that will unsettle you no matter what side of the debate you're on. Kaye films in detail two abortion procedures from start to finish - one late-term abortion and one first trimester abortion. O'Hehir writes of these sequences: The principal difference between the two procedures is a matter of size and quantity, but the removed material is recognizably and shockingly human. For much too long, the pro-choice movement has relied on comforting euphemisms suggesting that early abortions result in nothing more than unrecognizable globs of goo. That was always sophistry; when you see tiny severed legs, arms and other body parts in that tray, it seems like something worse than that. And Kaye supplements the footage with his thoughts in an interview with O'Hehir: "When I did film it, which was after five years of working on the film, I was in" -- here a long pause; he's having trouble getting the words out -- "an altered state when I came out of that place." But hang on: Hold those calls and letters, defenders of choice. Throughout the film, Kaye is extraordinarily sensitive to the painful decisions of women who seek out the procedure. If the abortion scenes are shocking, so are Kaye's interviews with the bloody-minded, Bible-pounding zealots of the so-called pro-life movement. These people constitute an entire universe of loner white guys with pinched faces and extremist interpretations of a few passages in ancient Hebrew religious works, perversely devoted to controlling female reproduction but totally unconcerned about the health and welfare of already-existing women and children. As interviewee Noam Chomsky puts it (he's seen here as a logician rather than a polemicist, and in that role he has few peers), the pro-lifers might have a valid moral point to make, if there was any seriousness or consistency or concern about poverty and human welfare in their position. Though it sounds like an important film that comes close to historically documenting the Abortion Wars of the 90s with an objective eye, (and thus raising still more questions than it answers, a scenario that will probably frustrate those searching for The Answer on this issue), I'd wager that only a handful of the most devout anti-choice and pro-choice adherents are gonna see this one. Kaye wrestles with the arguments of each sometimes fanatical side of the debate and investigates the details of said arguments squarely and with what, he claims, was a totally unbiased approach. The doc was shot in black and white, a choice Kaye says he made for two reasons: the abortion procedure footage would have been unbearable in color, and because "black and white" when applied to film is a misnomer: there are thousands of shades of gray creating what you see on the screen. A fitting choice for what is often branded a right vs. wrong issue by both sides but is, in all actuality, not so simple a question for the majority of Americans. As O'Hehir eloquently puts it: Kaye's accomplishment here is to demonstrate that no side in the dispute holds a monopoly on morality or truth, but also that the "middle ground" on abortion, occupied by most Americans, is an ethically unstable swamp where nobody's motives are pure and where we face unsavory questions about when and whether it's acceptable to end (or avert, if you prefer) a human life. When you've got some on one side, the pro-choice side, balking at phrases like "safe, legal, and rare," meanwhile zealots on the other side, when confronted with evidence that one-half of all pregnancies in America are unintended and by promoting contraception use we would cut down on this staggering number and a huge percentage of abortions, still won't budge on their anti-contraception stance, a film that aims its lens at the gray areas of this debate is welcome.

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