Right now there are only four doctors in America who perform third trimester abortions and they happen to be the subjects of the documentary ‘After Tiller‘, a fascinating and humanizing look at a polarizing issue. Directed by filmmakers Lana Wilson and Martha Shane, ‘After Tiller’ refers to life after George Tiller, a late term abortion physician based in Wichita, KS who was murdered during a church service by an anti-abortion activist in 2009. Since then a small collective of doctors, Lee Carhart, Shelley Sella, Warren Hern, and Susan Robinson, have continued to practice through picketing and violent threats to keep their doors open for women in need. The film is a partial examination of these doctor’s daily duties with women who are stuck between two difficult choices.
I sat down with directors Lana Wilson, Martha Shane and Dr. Susan Robinson to discuss the film that they hope can shed more light on this forever debatable subject. ‘After Tiller‘ Opens TODAY in NYC @ Film Forum & The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Question: This is your debut feature film together, what made you want to explore third trimester abortions in your first filmmaking venture
Lana Wilson: It really came from just being fascinated by the news coverage of Dr. Tiller’s death. I remember when he was killed and just being surprised at the facts of what had happened, that he had been killed at a church where he’d gone to with his family for over twenty years. It seems so surprising that the number one target of the anti-abortion movement is also a deeply religious Christian, that he’d been shot in both arms during the 90s and that he’d gone back the next day after this happened was shocking, too. The dedication seemed extraordinary. I just wondered what kind of personality it would take to do the job. I remember watching the news coverage and being obsessed with it and thinking “someone’s going to make a movie on Dr. Tiller” and then I realized that no one was and that it’s just such a polarizing issue. People want to stay away from it because it’s such a challenging subject. Then I just thought, “I should make a movie on Dr. Tiller” and then it became “well, wouldn’t it be more interesting to be in the present day lives of the doctors who are left now, what is it like to be them?” Why would you seek an abortion so late in pregnancy? After Dr. Tiller’s gone, will people be scared away or will they keep doing it? So I had that idea, but I didn’t know how to make a film and Martha and I are friends in college and Martha had been working in documentaries for years, so then I asked her if she would collaborate with me on the project.
Q: And you were completely ready to jump on board?
Martha Shane: No, my first question was how can there be only four doctors in the country who are doing this work? That immediately intrigued me and then once we started looking into it more and I started reading about it I was like, “Well somebody else must be making this documentary already” because it’s such an innately fascinating subject. When we found out that no one else was doing it, I just couldn’t believe it, it’s such a rich subject and it really sustained our interest over the past three to four years.
LW: I remember telling my mother about it. She knew I was making a documentary and so I said it’s about third trimester abortion providers and she was like, “Lana, Don’t do this! Don’t do this!” It was like I was a rebellious teenager. She thought I was doing it just to get her. But since then, she’s totally on board. She’s pro-choice. She loves the movie.
Q: Did any of you have more of a religious, conservative upbringing where you’re values changed over time, or did you always have a liberal attitude towards the subject?
MS: I was always pro-choice, my parents are pro-choice, but I think it’s very different when it comes to third trimester abortion. I think my parents, probably my dad in particular, were extremely uncomfortable just with the subject, not that they wouldn’t respect someone’s right to have third trimester abortion, but just a level of “Why do you want to talk about that?”
LW: A lot of people are pro-choice but they kind of don’t think about it. “Yeah, I’m pro-choice” but they don’t consider it very deeply.
Dr. Susan Robinson: Right, and then they say that, “I’m not comfortable with third trimester abortions. And my thought is, it’s not about their comfort. It’s about these poor desperate women who find out they’re pregnant and they’re already three quarters of the way through pregnancy and a pregnancy will wreck their life. What are they supposed to do? Those are the people we take care of. We take care of people whom pregnancy would wreck their life or who have a baby that’s hugely damaged to the point where the parents who wanted this pregnancy think that perpetrating a life on this kid is unfair. Their only parenting decision is that they’re going to spare their kid a life of suffering.
I was brought up not religious. Both of my parents are dead so they have no input but all of my extended family- my sister, half-sister, brother, my uncles and aunts in their nineties and hundreds- are all, “Go Susan!” Nobody including Dave, my husband, has said to me “couldn’t you be a little more careful, couldn’t you be a little more lower profile, couldn’t you tone it down a bit?” Nobody has said that to me thank god.
LW: And that’s the thing each one of these doctors has in common is that they all have these unbelievable supportive families, very strong stable, completely supportive families.
DSR: Because the anti-abortion people can get at you through your family when they really can’t get at you directly. Like the guy who rents to Lee Carhart, they picketed his daughter’s middle school. I mean get a life, that’s disgusting.
Q: I know you originally were hesitant to allow Lana and Martha in to film you. What changed for you to let them film?
Dr. Tiller did not do any press: no interviews ever, that’s it. Because he would say it’s not about me, it’s about the patient. So Shelley and I, he was our mentor, and we thought that was the right answer. So Lana, I think you called me up and I said “No, thank you, we don’t do press,” but they were quite persistent and very nice and friendly and came out to visit the clinic and we were very taken with them and thought, “Well you know this might be fun.” You just had the right chemistry. I remember Glenna [assistant] saying, “we’ve got to do this, they’re so perky.” Isn’t that a great word?! I never told you that [laughing]. Then we also took stock of the fact that if we’re not willing to get out there and show our faces, then whose face is on third trimester abortion? It’s Kermit Goznell, that creepy guy in Philadelphia, who looks ghastly and did ghastly things. We thought that there was a better story to tell than that and we thought that we could be spokespeople for it. So, we kind of did a 180.
Q: Did you guys ever feel hesitant peeking in on this clinic? This is a very sacred space to put a camera. You didn’t film any patients’ faces, but was it worrisome for you that you were invading these women’s lives?
MS: I think we felt confident enough that this was a story that needed to be told, that we were comfortable being in the clinic and that we made sure we were as unobtrusive as possible. We had a female DP, so it was just the three of us (one of us would do sound, the other direct). So it was very small. We just tried to be as respectful as possible. There was a time when Dr. Sella just said, “I need the filmmakers gone,” and you know sometimes it gets stressful in the clinic and we just had to sort of be respectful of that and also be respectful of the patients. Some of them were happy to have us there all the time, some were only happy to have us there certain days. I think just listening to everybody, making sure, and being cognizant of the fact that it can be annoying to have a camera around and giving space when people needed it.
LW: Yeah, it was really up to the patients. We weren’t pushing ourselves up anywhere. We were like, “Would you like us to be here, here’s why we’re making this movie,” and it was completely up to them.
DSR: As soon as they [patients] showed up at the front desk they were told there’s a film crew here, they’re making a movie, they’re not taking any pictures of you without your permission. Before they saw the film crew, they had a chance to say, “no, I don’t want to be involved” without embarrassing anybody. Having the crew be all female was what made a huge difference. It’s hard to imagine you could have three people with a large camera and boom mic and be unobtrusive. It just worked out well, and the patients, I never had even one hint of a complaint.
Q: Dr. Robinson, your moments in the film with patients are some of the most authentic in the film. This job can be both enlightening and equally depressing. How difficult, if at all, is your job as this kind of doctor?
DSR: It is difficult because I really want to be present there for that patient. I don’t want to just come in, put in my eight hours and leave. I want to really listen to what they have to say because they’re at a moment of crisis and my intervention is going to redirect their life in a way. So, if someone says to me “I feel so guilty, I’m being so selfish, I have a baby at home but I can’t afford another baby, and so I don’t believe in abortion but I’ve got to have it, otherwise I won’t be able to care for my other baby,” I can say “uh huh,” or I can really engage with that woman. I can say there’s another way to look at this, which is that you’re taking a very responsible stand toward the baby that you’ve already got. Yes you’ve got two terrible choices here, and you’re picking the most caring one, the best mothering one, and I think it’s healing for them to hear that from a doctor. A doctor is almost like a shaman in that setting. So I have to present there, and that’s exhausting. I think the hardest part for me is being away from home half the time. I’ve got a husband and a house and two dogs and half the time I’m not there, I’m in Albuquerque. We’ve talked about moving to Albuquerque but Dave and I have a house that Dave built and we don’t want to leave it, we love California.
Q: Martha and Lana, did you guys find it emotionally exhausting as well? I imagine you had preconceptions about what it was like to be in the clinic a lot, but did you get affected more than you thought you would?
MS: I think it was definitely very emotional and it was both very energizing and draining. It was amazing to see these patients go through these transformations, but at the end of the day we sort of needed to decompress and talk through what we had seen and processed. I think we just tried to be as friendly and supportive as possible.
LW: It’s amazing how many people like to have someone hear their story when they’re not judging them. I think it’s cathartic for them. It feels like, “I have couple more friends along with me.” It was also cathartic knowing their story would get out there to an audience because they had all gone through this experience never expecting to end up at this clinic asking for a third trimester abortion, and they had also gone through the experience of walking past protesters and then having to go back to their community having to explain to everyone what had happened.
Q: Well, you never get into the religious fanaticism or the pro-life protesters too much. Was it your biggest goal to block this noise out and focus just on the humanistic element of who these doctors are?
LW: Yeah, I mean a lot of people came out and said, “You have to get the other side, it has to be balanced,” it was like, “Says who?” We’re not working for a corporation, or HBO, or a newspaper. That’s how we presented it to the doctors, it was an independent documentary, it was literally just us demanding anything. Who says you have to get equal time with both sides of the issue here. Also, it’s not like we were going to get political talking points rom pro-choice advocates. Why have a film that shows all the stuff people hear on the news all the time anyway? We were just interested in what people do not know, what do they misunderstand, and just focusing on what was new and interesting. The protesters are seen form the doctors perspective. They’re a constant presence, but they’re really in the background. It’s not like they directly interact with the doctors. We didn’t want to paint them as the cartoonish, extreme villains because while some of them are certainly crazy, not all of them are.
DSR: They get up on tables and scream with megaphones, it’s laughable. They picketed the Holocaust Museum in Albuquerque because they demanded a display for aborted children. Can you imagine anything more offensive?
Q: Yeah it doesn’t seem like this movie is intended for those people, or was it? It seems aimed at the middle ground.
MS: Yeah, we feel with third trimester abortion, the vast majority of people are sort of in the middle on the issue. They have complicated feelings about it and above all they just don’t know much about it. So we made the film that hopefully educated people in a lot of ways. I can’t tell you how many people are relieved just to see how that procedure is done just in the phone call in the beginning because they’ve made so many horror stories and lies about it. So we’ve made a film that hopefully can appeal to both political sides of the issue but are both willing to think it through in a new way.
Q: Dr. Susan, Dr. Carhart goes through a lot of threats in the film and alludes to his barn of horses being burned down. What is it like for you to always have the sense of danger looming from behind?
DSR: I’ve never had anything happen to me like Lee. They burned down his barn, they killed his dogs. If somebody went and harmed Dave and the dogs, that would just be awful, unthinkable, I don’t know what I would do. But for me, the clinic keeps me away from the protesters. I don’t go out to the front parking lot, so they don’t ever get to see me, and if I do I just wave and smile and pretend they’re my fan club. The angry nasty letters all get thrown away without me ever seeing them, which is just fine with me because it really does dilute your focus. If I think about it all the time, they win.
Q: What do you hope this movie can convey to people as they exit the theater and think about this more?
LS: One thing we’d love is for people to come away thinking, “this issue is really different than I thought it was, more complicated than I thought it was.” If people can bring less judgment and more compassion into the issue, regardless of what their view is, if they can just look at the doctors and patients involved as human beings with more understanding and sympathy, that would be great.
DSR: Yeah, I hope it will allow people to have a conversation about this instead of doing what they’re doing now which is standing on opposite sides of the street screaming at each other. It’s very hard to get a conversation going and I think this film is a wonderful catalyst for that.
MS: One of goals was just to humanize the doctors, show that they’re not so different than most people and so hopefully that regardless of how you feel politically on the issue, they shouldn’t have to fear for their lives.
LS: We’re also hoping it will make a lot of money…[laughing]
– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed (On-Site) by Jake Kring-Schreifels