By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Lake of Fire,” ThinkFilm, 2007]
The subject of “Lake of Fire” the decades-long debate over abortion is exactly the kind of thing we typically go to the movies to escape from. Director Tony Kaye knows this, and he has no interest in making any concessions to the audience: his is one of the most defiantly uncommercial films ever made. It wasn’t enough for Kaye to make a documentary on abortion, and it wasn’t enough to make it three hours long. It wasn’t even enough to film it in black and white. Brashest of all, he’s dared to make the film even handed; to treat both sides equally and honestly. If he’d presented either side in a particularly positive or negative light, he might have had an easier road to travel, financially. It’s easy to make money preaching to one choir or another. Instead, he ignored all of that on the way to crafting an authoritative and possible definitive portrait of one of the most controversial issues of our time.
Kaye’s been shooting the film, often with his own money and a skeletal crew, for over a decade: the earliest footage we see in the film dates to an anti-abortion rally in January of 1993. “Lake of Fire” follows a loose timeline (and includes graphic footage from real abortions) but the film is largely concerned with letting critics on both sides of the issue expound on their positions. The discussions run the gamut from illuminating to disturbing to infuriating. Your feelings about abortion may not change, but it’s virtually impossible to walk out of the film with anything less than a great deal more information on the issue than when you walked in.
For me, the largest revelation involved understanding more fully than I ever had before how abortion sits at the nexus of so many different issues: from the right to access to birth control, to the belief in the death penalty, to race, to religion, to gender. Abortion draws “true believers” from all sides who want to trade in absolutes while discussing enormous moral, ethical and spiritual issues that are based in the fundamental unknowns of life on earth. Watching “Lake of Fire,” you begin to see this enormous tapestry of the human condition; we all experience things differently yet we try to make ourselves believe we are all exactly the same.
There are many interesting speakers and a range of viewpoints in the film (it’s hard to conceive of any that Kaye doesn’t air at least once), but the most provocative may be the one espoused by The Village Voice‘s Nat Hentoff, a pro-life liberal who argues that abortion is almost certainly murder, and that someone who is truly pro-life is someone who is also anti-murder, and thus also anti-war, anti-death penalty and anti-poverty. As Kaye’s film shows, this is rarely the case.
It’s unfathomable to consider how many choices Kaye must have had to make over the course of shooting and editing his 152-minute opus, and indeed how many of them were the right one, including the decision to shoot in black and white, which not only adds an unsettling dimension to the scenes inside abortion clinics, but also gives the film a timeless look amidst all the ridiculous 90s haircuts, not to mention the air of a historical document. Those who prefer a distanced documentarian with at least the appearance of impartiality will approve of the way Kaye becomes almost invisible within his own film, never seen on camera and rarely heard off it.
The film ends with a sober and non-judgmental account of a woman having an abortion, one who is clearly unfit to raise a child (on her own, after her relationship with an abusive spouse has ended) but who finishes her message of happiness to Kaye’s camera by breaking down in tears about what she’s done. While discussing the abortion with her clinic’s caretakers, she worries that she is “scared of the uncertain” for her unborn baby. Aren’t we all.
“Lake of Fire” opens in limited release October 3rd (official site).