Timely Film Showing What It Was Like To Get An Abortion Before Roe v. Wade Premieres At Newport Beach Film Festival

Jonetta Kaiser (Rosario)

From October 1 – 11, The Newport Beach Film Festival will be premiering the new short narrative film ‘JANE’, which is based on a real life group of women known as the Jane Collective, who were in operation before the landmark Supreme court decision changed abortion access in the United States. Set in the era before Roe v. Wade, Teresa, a college student and Josie, a housewife with kids, are part of an underground group, who break the law to help women access safe abortions. When their trusted doctor doesn’t show up, will they be forced to turn women in need away?

The story may be historical, but given what we are seeing politics today – an emboldened anti-choice movement that is ramping up its support of anti-abortion legislation across the country, the nomination of notoriously anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and Trump and the Republicans doubling down on making safe and legal abortion harder to access in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election – it is more timely than ever.

Activists, organizations and individuals in the reproductive rights and justice space have already begun preparing for a world in which Roe v. Wade is overturned completely, and accessing abortion depends on your financial status, the state you live in, or how desperate you are. The film ‘JANE’ began as a Kickstarter campaign in 2018 (which saw the filmmakers raise over $28,000) and is finally making its way to audience starting with this year’s virtual Newport Beach Film Festival.

We spoke with writer/director Natalija Vekic and producer Reena Dutt about their hopes for the intended impact of ‘JANE’, their thoughts on the current fight over abortion access, and why we cannot go back to a time in America where all abortion is illegal.

Mishel Prada (Teresa) & Mekenna Melvin (Josie)

Congrats on the premier of ‘Jane’ at the Newport Beach Film Festival! It is extremely timely given the subject matter and what is happening politically. How does it feel to have these worlds collide for you?

Natalija Vekic: I knew the country was headed in this direction years ago. ‘Jane’ started out as a feature film. As I wrote the script over several years, I saw an unprecedented attack on women’s reproductive justice –– shutting down clinics, the threat of funding cuts to Planned Parenthood and restrictive state laws that made it impossible for women to access safe and affordable abortions. But that doesn’t make this moment any less terrifying. The fact that the film is premiering as the Senate rushes through a Supreme Court nominee that is hostile to Roe v. Wade feels like we’re in deep trouble. In some ways, Jane is a peek into our future if we don’t stand up for women’s reproductive rights now. 

From interviews with the Jane members, I know what it was like for women before Roe V. Wade. My first job as a filmmaker is to tell a compelling story, but I also want a younger audience to understand the lack of choices women had before Roe v. Wade, and the dangers they faced getting an illegal abortion. We do not want to go back. And right now, Roe v. Wade is in grave danger. 

Also, Roe v Wade maybe the law of the land, but there are places in this country like –– Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Mississippi that rely on one clinic to serve the entire state. “It doesn’t make a difference if it’s legal if it’s inaccessible.” Barriers to access tend to disproportionately impact women of color, women in poor communities and rural areas.

Reena Dutt: It feels really good to know we’re making thought-provoking content. I hope it’s a conversation starter in people’s homes this year.

The film follows a group of women called the Jane Collective who are helping women access underground abortions in 1969. How did you first learn about the group and what drew you to make a short film about them? 

NV: When I read about the Janes, I knew immediately this was a rich, complex story about a group of brave, rebellious women. I was inspired by the Jane members––many of them ordinary students and housewives with children, who challenged a system that put women’s lives at risk. I knew I had to tell this story. 

I had not planned on making a short film –– I wanted to write and direct Jane as my first feature film. I wrote the initial draft very quickly while I was in the screenwriting program at UCLA. I knew that was merely a starting point. I wanted to capture the nuances of the Jane story and the women they helped, so I tracked down several original Jane members and interviewed them. This was revelatory. It gave me an insight into the details of the world. I continued to revise the script in multiple screenwriting labs until I felt it was in good shape. 

This was a story worth fighting for and I was determined to direct the film. I arranged meetings with producers who encouraged me to make the lead role a “male” doctor, write an action thriller, and told me the story was “too hard to make.” What they didn’t say, but I understood, is “We don’t want to take a risk on you.” This is a common roadblock for many women directors getting their first shot at directing a feature. 

But my commitment to tell this story was unwavering –– so I wrote a short film version of Jane. While raising a million dollars for a feature seemed daunting, I could envision a short film. Ultimately, I collaborated with a producer Reena Dutt and directed the Jane short film with a largely women-powered crew and a group of talented collaborators, including Mishel Prada (‘Vida’/ ‘Riverdale’) and Mekenna Melvin (‘Chuck’). 

RD: I learned about them through Natalija.  I was floored by the love and commitment Natalija has for this project and immediately wanted to be a part of it.

Leah Monnette (Verna)

The film takes place before Roe v Wade was decided, but in 2020, we are looking at Roe v Wade hanging on by a mere thread. What do you think audiences can learn from the real life story of the Jane Collective? 

NV: No one is going to save us. We have to save ourselves. We don’t have time to be complacent or intimidated. The best antidote to fear is action. What the Janes (and Margaret Mead) can teach us –– is that it only takes a small group of dedicated people to create change. The Janes were a relatively small group, people circled in and out, but they constantly challenged a broken system. We must organize on all fronts –– pass legislation, strengthen laws at the state level, expand the option of tele-medicine, and continue to go to court to fight punitive anti-abortion laws –– like “TRAP Laws” and “Heart Beat Bills.” The fact that male-led state legislatures and courts get to make decisions about our reproductive choices and healthcare is insulting and discriminatory.

RD: I hope folx see how complicated each situation is, how risky it was, and how appreciate women were to be given a second chance. I hope there is a ton of discussion, arguments, and empathy that stems from watching it. If the film is not polarizing, it has not done its job.

In the film, which is shot inside a 60’s style house doubling as a clinic, the first patient we see is a young woman of color, and the second is a woman we assume is a wife and mother. Were these characters chosen on purpose, given the stats around the majority of women who access abortion today? 

NV: I wasn’t thinking about statistics when I wrote the characters. I was thinking a lot about my interviews with the Jane members. I was struck by the stories they told about the older women who came to see them. Their stories stayed with me. A lot of the women already had families and children. At the time, there was a lack of basic sex education. Many women assumed because they had reached a certain age they could not get pregnant. Then suddenly they found themselves pregnant. 

The women had many reasons for not wanting to go through with their pregnancy. Some women were trapped in bad marriages or had abusive husbands. For others, it was economic, they simply could not afford to bring another child into the world. They already had other children to consider. I thought this is a version of the story we don’t see often enough. I felt that showing an older woman come into the service would add more layers and complexity to the character and her decision. Many films and TV shows depict high school girls seeking abortions. I wanted to explore another side of the story. That’s why I wrote the character of Verna (played by Leah Monnette) who already had three children and a relatively happy marriage.

The Janes also had a lot of college students use the service. Many of them were young women whose lives would be completely transformed by a college education. Getting pregnant would effectively end their college careers. I wanted to juxtapose the two sides of the age spectrum in that waiting room by showing both Verna (Leah Monette – the older woman) and Rosario (played by Jonetta Kaiser – the college student). There isn’t one type of woman that gets an abortion. I wanted in some small way to capture that.

Tyra Collar (Carmen)

When the Jane members Josie and Teresa learn the doctor is not going to show up, they take charge of the patients and procedures. The idea of self-managed abortion and “underground” clinics don’t seem like a far off reality any more given the immense amount to abortion restrictions and clinic closures throughout the US. What parallels did you want to show through ‘Jane’?

NV: The lack of access is already happening. That’s the parallel. Women are forced to take time off work, find childcare, drive hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic and then face 48-hour mandatory waiting periods just to access reproductive healthcare. Who can afford that? There are women’s groups that raise money to help women seeking abortions cover the costs of childcare, gas money and hotel stays. It is outrageous that women are forced to go through this. Of course, it was much worse before Roe v Wade, but women went through similar hoops to find a decent doctor.

I think tele-medicine options will become more prevalent and I think women will be forced to travel even farther to access abortions in states that have legal clinics.

The real lives of women and providers are often left out of narratives around abortion today. What do you hope audiences will take away most from watching ‘Jane’? 

NV: I wanted to delve into the complex issues and emotions surrounding abortion rather than an oversimplified narrative. 

There is so much stigma around abortion. So many women feel ashamed to talk about their abortions. We don’t discuss the experience openly. In the counseling scene between Verna and Teresa, I wanted Verna to express her feelings, to explore the personal struggle of her decision and for someone to be there to listen and support her without judgement. I wanted to create space for her. Because after she buttons up that suit and looks at herself in the mirror, I imagine she’s going back to her life. Like so many women, she may never talk to anybody about the experience. But for that brief moment, she’s supported and heard.

I also wanted to show the experience from the perspective of the Jane members. Women taking care of other women. There are strong bonds there, but also tension. That felt important for me to show. It isn’t a perfect system, but they want to take care of the women and treat them with respect. For Teresa, seeing first-hand the fear and desperation of the woman she counsels, propels her to take this next step. The work has an emotional impact on her and she cares about the patients. Meanwhile, Josie, is determined for the group to take the next step and do abortions without a male doctor. She understands that she has another woman’s life in their hands. She’s dedicated and determined, but can she do this?

RD: If we value a woman’s life, body and choice, hopefully this film will make more folx cognizant of how important voting is. We shouldn’t need a wife, sister, or daughter who is at risk of an unwanted life-change in order to care about the gender as a whole.

You can watch ‘JANE’ virtually via the Newport Beach Film Festival, between October 1 -11 by clicking here.

Mishel Prada (Teresa) & Mekenna Melvin (Josie)

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