The topic of abortion is one of the most heated and divisive in America, more so today than ever before. One of the major aspects missing in discussions, debates, and even in certain types of legislation around abortion, is the individual experience and personal stories. It is often presented as a monolithic issue being pulled in certain directions by politics, religion and activist groups. But we are also starting to see media direct conversations around abortion in a way that delivers empathy, nuance, and a difference perspective.
Documentaries like Dawn Porter’s ‘Trapped’ and Tracy Droz Tragos’ ‘Abortion: Stories Women Tell’ are giving new insight into what women are actually experiencing in America today when seeking an abortion. There is another documentary which has become a powerful tool not just for disseminating important information, but also for creating first-hand empathy.
‘Across The Line’ is a Virtual Reality short documentary which was executive-produced by Planned Parenthood and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. It will next be showing at Brown University’s Ivy Film Festival, one of the largest student-run film festivals in the world, which runs from April 10-16. IFF is also one of the first student-run festivals to pioneer an initiative geared toward VR.
They aim to foster the next generation’s dialog around story-telling, and the inclusion of ‘Across The Line’, which will be available to view at IFF on April 11, is part of this mission.
“IFF chose to include ‘Across the Line’ in its program because we believe VR offers a unique and powerful medium to foster empathy and reflect the reality that many women in America face today. We hope to inform and advance knowledge about a reality that continues to be at the center of so much division in our country,” said Ivy Film Festival’s directing team.
Since safe, legal and regulated abortion access as well as reproductive rights are important to us, we wanted to learn more about ‘Across The Line’ and its intended impact in our current political climate. We spoke with veteran documentary filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein, who worked alongside “The Godmother of Virtual Reality” Nonny de la Peña and artist/technologist Jeff Fitzsimmons to create the 7 minute film. The decision to make a 360 film was intentional, Brad told us.
“It is a much more immersive medium, allowing audiences to have a subjective experience,” he said.
The film follows Christina, the subject of the story, as she goes to an abortion clinic and is confronted with a group of angry and forceful protestors. We also see her inside the clinic talking to a health care professional. The third part of the film was made using motion capture CGI, showing a mob of hostile, in-your-face anti-abortion protestors where viewers are put right in the middle of this intense setting. Although the images are CGI, the phrases you hear are actual words used by protestors captured by filmmakers.
In preparation for filming, the team workshopped the scenarios with a theater professional who has experience working with patients who have gone through sexual trauma, in order to gain insight to what emotions a person trying to access an abortion clinic and being confronted by a group of angry protestors might feel.
“This is what made the narrative experience that audiences see all the more authentic. Our protagonist, Christina, also had had an abortion in real life so for her it was like reliving her own experience,” said Brad.
On a wider scale, many abortion-related films and documentaries aim to challenge individual perspectives and perhaps even policy, whereas ‘Across The Line’ has a slightly different focus.
“It’s about engagement and the conversations people have after they see this film. We’ve had a number of people take off the VR goggles feeling very emotional about what they have just gone through,” said Brad.
One woman he spoke to at the Tribeca Film Festival, a writer for NY Mag who used to volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center in Michigan (which are notorious for lying to pregnant women about medical information to try and dissuade from seeking an abortion) said it made her cry to watch this film.
“We want audiences to have a conversation about clinic harassment and know that it doesn’t happen in isolation. It is a motivation for the violence we see toward clinics and providers,” he said.
Another young man said it reminded him of his own experience, going with his girlfriend to get an abortion. Brad describes how people more privileged would watch this film and become rather surprised at the level and intensity of harassment outside these clinics. Sadly, anti-abortions such as the current spate of “defund Planned Parenthood” proposals, disproportionately affect mostly low-income women of color who rely on these services.
Brad also described talking with a pro-life Catholic woman who watch the film and expressed how she appreciated they didn’t “sensationalize” the issue, but presented it as it happens. The impact it could have on how she discusses this with her own faith community could be exponential, showing the power of media to challenge minds in a way politics often cannot.
While the team were making this film, the Planned Parenthood Colorado Springs shooting occurred in November 2015, where a crazed gunman shot and killed 3 people at the clinic, and later told police “no more baby parts” as his reasoning. You may recall this was around the time a number of Republican presidential debates discussed the topic of the now-debunked smear videos (the creators of which have recently been convicted on 15 counts of felony in a California court). It made Brad realize how important ‘Across The Line’ really was.
Brad also says the intent was to help those on the fence about this topic to take a stronger stance after seeing the reality of what women face.
“Opponents of abortion are so vocal and successful at painting clinics as this dirty setting, so by taking viewers inside an actual facility, they see what it really looks like – a normal, clean medical center” he said.
We were curious to know Brad’s opinion on this topic, especially being a man involved in this kind of documentary. He said it was personal to him as an ally of the feminist movement.
“When I was in college I had a girlfriend who had an abortion, and it was a very emotion experience. I also benefited from these types of clinics as I grew up in the AIDS/HIV era and was able to get an STD test without having to tell my parents,” he recalled.
The freedom to get tested and have that remain confidential, and to be able to support his ex-girlfriend made him realize the importance of using his filmmaking career to advocate for social justice topics, including reproductive rights and safe, legal abortion access.
We also wanted Brad’s advice on how to engage more men in this conversation, as the majority of male voices dominated the abortion debate are generally older, white anti-choice politicians who control a large portion of state and federal legislatures across the US.
“It’s a matter of helping men articulate their support,” he said. A good starting point is putting them in the shoes of women facing harassment outside an abortion clinic, which is made possible thanks to ‘Across The Line’.
If you are planning to attend the Ivy Film Festival, we highly recommend you set aside 7 minutes to watch ‘Across The Line’ which will be available for viewing on Monday April 1oth. You can also visit the film’s website to find information on how to view it elsewhere.