Sundance Review: 12th & Delaware

You would be hard pushed to make a film about abortion that wasn’t controversial and didn’t evoke a response. It is one issue of which people generally feel strongly about one way or another. Five minutes into 12th & and Delaware and I was absolutely furious.

From the makers of Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 12th & Delaware plants itself on the street of its title which is home to the bizarre setup of having an abortion clinic on one side of the street and a pro-life facility on the other.

Unfolding over one year this is truly a war film, an ideological war that has the lives and future of the young women in the film at its core. At the forefront of this particular battle are Anne and Candace, who head their respective facilities. Anne is in charge of the Pregnancy Care Center, which paints a terrifying portrait of abortions, hands out leaflets telling of imminent breast cancer as a result of having an abortion and offers free McDonalds to hungry girls. They also provide free ultra-sounds, something which very few of the young women could afford otherwise. The facility plays on the unfortunate fact that many girls looking for an abortion walk into their clinic by accident, thinking they are heading into the clinic across the street. Seeing the young girls’ reaction on being faced with an intense interview with Anne and her presentation of plastic foetuses provides humour but also a sense of dread when you witness Anne’s relentless determination to persuade them to carry on with their pregnancy, no matter what it takes.

The abortion clinic, A Woman’s World, dominates the story less. This is largely because they have to operate in a far more discreet manner and so our main glimpse into their standpoint is through Candace alone who can only witness what happens outside by peeking through the closed blinds of the clinic windows. The high levels of security and ingrained fear felt by the staff of the clinic is troubling and the scenes with them are highly tense. This is especially evident when you are confronted with scenes of young girls who have been told by the pro-life clinic that they have been pregnant for a shorter amount of time than is true in order to make them think they have more time to make their decision, risking the possibility that they will miss the legal deadline to have an abortion. Candace’s frustration and empathy for the young women is very moving, especially when you sense her constant fear of possible violence towards her staff.

Shot in the year abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his church, this is the perfect microcosm to show the debate and you have to commend the filmmakers for finding such a great location from which to look at this issue. The street provides a physical representation of the personal crossroads these girls are facing. It’s also impressive that they managed to get full access to both facilities and there seems no hesitation from the staff of either venue to be open and honest about what goes on in their facility.

Some of the initial reactions have criticised the film being on the fence with concern that it could please both pro-lifers and pro-choice people. Personally I’m glad they showed both sides in a balanced way and with most people feeling very strongly in their opinion of this issue. I think it was an incredibly smart choice in order to get the film shown as widely as possible, letting the audience make their own judgements of what they’ve been shown

However, even if you were pro-life I would really struggle to believe that you could watch the protesters outside the abortion clinic and feel that they were behaving in an appropriate way. Shouting at young girls through windows, harassing them as they enter the clinic and holding signs of bloody body parts of aborted babies was just appalling to see. One of the most terrifying was one of the men who frequents the street outside. You get a sense of how thin the line is between peaceful protest and possible escalation into violence when you see his relentless intent to find out who the doctors are in the clinic. They are transported in and out of the facility covered in sheets to protect their identity and the scenes of him trying to track them down fills you with absolute dread as to what his reaction will be if he uncovers their identity. It is hard to imagine you could watch this and not feel that the pro-life clinic does nothing more than deceive and scared young girls who are looking for help and guidance, which is despicable whichever way you look at it.

There have also been a few comments made about the different ways in which the pregnant girls were shown in the film. In the pro-life facility you get full access to their interviews and see their reactions and responses to the information they are given. At the abortion clinic their faces are hidden from the camera and I didn’t find this surprising at all. As much as you’d love to get as much access to the people within the film as possible you can understand from the attitudes of the pro-life protesters that you would be crazy to identify yourself on film if you were going to get an abortion.

I also have to highlight the incredible cinematography by Katherine Patterson.  The colour, tone and use of atmospheric out-of-focus shots add so much to the quality of the film and strength of the story. Visually it’s a beautiful film and the considered cinematography adds much needed pauses to help you process some of the more shocking scenes and move between the two opposing locations.

Whatever your side to the debate you wont be able to help having a response to the film. Documentaries often illicit strong reactions, often those that have a message or issue tend to provoke the reaction of being moved or shocked by what the filmmaker is trying to reveal to the world. Anger is a less common reaction, but one I’d like to see more often. This is an expertly crafted documentary that looks into the abortion issue in a sensitive and non-judgemental way that will hopefully have an impact by creating debate.  What makes it a great documentary, though, is that it’s also storytelling at it’s highest calibre,