Sundance Review: 'After Tiller' is a human look at abortion drama
Documentary avoids sensationalism in looking at late-term procedures
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In one of those only-at-Sundance double-bills, my Friday (January 18) afternoon featured the back-to-back premieres of Andy Heathcote's "The Moo Man," a World Documentary competition entry about British dairy farmer Stephen Hooks, and Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's "After Tiller," a US Documentary competition entry about the last four doctors in America performing third-trimester abortions.
These two films have nothing in common.
"The Moo Man" is an understated and simple film about a man and his cows and it ends up being a surprisingly moving story -- or, if you prefer for blurbing purposes, "a surprisingly moo-ving story" -- given that when it comes to subject matter, few viewers will enter the theater with a deep, pre-determined emotional investment. Whether you're a lover of organic, raw milk or you're lactose intolerant, "The Moo Man" probably won't have to work around any prodigious baggage. [I'm going to try to write a fuller review, but time is hard to come by.]
The same definitively cannot be said of "After Tiller."
[More after the break...]
Festival-goers attending Friday's premiere at the Temple Theater were greeted with metal detectors and bag searches, an abnormal amount of security for the normally lax Sundance. But when it comes to abortion, passions come pre-enflamed. No matter how pragmatic your personal position happens to be, chances are good that you're not totally agnostic. When you make the abortions "late-term" and then you add the element of abortion clinic violence, that only ups the emotional ante and ups the emotional anticipation for a film on the subject.
That's what makes "After Tiller" so unexpected. It's a subject matter that could easily and has easily been dealt with in broad, dogmatic brushstrokes, galvanizing viewers who didn't need convincing anyway and leaving anybody with an alternative viewpoint instantly alienated.
Did the "After Tiller" premiere produce tears and other audible responses from many around me? Absolutely. Did it also produce cheers and liberal righteousness? Absolutely. Don't make the mistake of thinking this isn't a documentary that knows exactly where it stands. But the film's directors and its subjects are smart folks who understand that no matter how strongly you believe in a position, especially this one, that belief is probably more shaded than a one-word "Yes" or "No."
In case you've forgotten, Dr. George Tiller was murdered in Kansas in 2009. He left behind four friends/colleagues/protigees still performing third-trimester abortions in three states. They are Nebraska doctor LeRoy Carhart, Colorado's Dr. Warren Hern and Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella, who commute a clinic in New Mexico. While the Tiller story and the who issue of late-term abortions could open doors for all manner of broader medical/ideological questions, Shane and Wilson keep their focus limited. This is a movie about the four doctors and their somewhat anonymous patients, generally shot from coy angles to prevent identification, even if their voices are undisguised.
It's also a movie about the procedure they perform and "After Tiller" doesn't attempt to make things pretty or to dodge the aspects of late-term abortions that leave even some pro-choice activists a little uncomfortable. The doctors instruct their patients that this isn't an operation. It's a delivery. They don't say they're removing "tissue" or "an embryo" or "the fetus." This is a delivery in which the baby is euthanized. They're honest and frank about what they do, but the documentary is also honest and frank about who they're doing this for and why it's important. These are parents who have been told that their unborn baby will have immediately fatal or permanently debilitating conditions. These are mothers who became pregnant as a result of rapes that they haven't begun to fully come to terms with. The doctors don't pretend that there aren't options and no abortion is performed without consultation, without a period for contemplation. As one of the doctors explains, these are women who have choices, but the choices are all sad, all tragic, all heartbreaking in their own way. The notion that this procedure is being carried out casually or callously is rendered ludicrous. The people we see deliberating this choice represent a variety of economic backgrounds, a variety of educational backgrounds and several of them are overtly religious people.
The patients aren't homogenous and the doctors aren't homogenous either. They come from a variety of medical backgrounds and found themselves taken under Tiller's wing in different ways. They also approach the procedure they perform in different ways, from Susan Robinson's pro-choice absolutism to more case-by-case approaches.
One could certainly feel like the case studies we see are perhaps a little too tick-every-box neat. I wouldn't disagree, but that doesn't mean they're simple or that "After Tiller" expects uniform audience reaction to the individual patients.
Because the depicted cases are so nuanced and, at least for some of the doctors, so based in shades of gray, Shane and Wilson didn't feel the need/desire to give a clear opposition perspective, not that "fair and balanced" is a requirement either for documentary filmmaking or for Sundance approval. The doctors themselves volunteer the counter-arguments themselves, either out of professional or ethical responsibility, or reasonable self-doubt. Shane and Wilson let the doctors have that self-doubt, while they're confident enough in the job's fundamental heroism that it never becomes necessary to demonize the opposition.
Wait. Let me backtrack. This is a documentary that begins with the opposition assassinating a churchgoing doctor and that features its main characters getting death threats and having their clinics shot at. But in this respect, the opposition demonizes itself sufficiently that the directors choose not to push further. We don't hear the harassing phone calls and the behavior from the straggling protestors outside the various clinics is muted. What Shane and Wilson don't do is put their fingers on the scale any more than the facts do on their own.
Perhaps because the issues in "After Tiller" are far from simple, Shane and Wilson take a relatively simple approach to the documentary's style, structure and aesthetic. I've already mentioned its clear focus, but there's a similarly uncluttered approach to the editing, talking heads, cinematography and music. Knowing your story and knowing the least "busy" way to tell it is something that takes some filmmakers decades. I've already criticized several doc directors this Sundance for not knowing how to get out of their own ways, something Shane and Wilson achieve in their first feature collaboration. I don't think "After Tiller" fully lands a knockout blow in the end, but I think that the filmmakers were more interested in -- forgive my mixed sports metaphor on virtually no sleep -- sticking the landing cleanly. I think that will pay off in eventual exposure and awards attention for "After Tiller."
And yes, the importance of respecting narrative simplicity and cleanly sticking the landing is what ties together "After Tiller" and "The Moo Man," two movies that otherwise couldn't be more different.
Other 2013 Sundance Film Festival Reviews: