After Tiller looks at doctors who perform late-term abortions and their patients
Dr. Sella, one of the subjects of After Tiller.
In 2009, George Tiller, one of only a handful of doctors who performed late-term abortions in this counry, was fatally shot while attending church services in his home town of Wichita, Kansas. In a one-night-only showing tonight, Physicians for Human Rights Colorado and the Sie FilmCenter will present After Tiller, a 2013 documentary that explores the dangerous existence led by doctors like Tiller, including Boulder's Warren Hern, as well as the complex situations and ethical struggles of the patients who receive the third-trimester procedure.
In advance of the screening, After Tiller co-director Martha Shane spoke with Westword about the challenges she and fellow filmmaker Lana Wilson faced when documenting this complex and sensitive topic.
Westword: How did After Tiller come to be as a documentary?
Martha Shane: I had been working in documentary for a while and my co-director (Lana Wilson) was working in the art world -- but she had the idea for the film while she was watching the news coverage of Dr. Tiller's assassination. We started to talk about how the mainstream news media wasn't necessarily going to cover this in the way that we could get the questions we had answered.
Here you had this doctor who was probably the most vilified abortion doctor in the U.S., who was killed in church -- we were surprised by some of the details of the person. Like I said, he was the most vilified doctor abortion doctor in the U.S. -- but he was also this religious cChristian and had a military background. What we really started to ask ourselves was, what would motivate someone to do this work when they are at risk of being killed?
At first we thought about making a film about Dr. Tiller's life; then we realized it would be more interesting to be inside the lives of the doctors who are still doing this work.
This story wouldn't be able to be told without consent of all four licensed doctors in the U.S. who perform third-trimester abortions. As is shown in the film, this is dangerous work -- were you ever afraid you wouldn't be able to get all four doctors to participate?
That was definitely a big concern for us. At first, we really only knew about the two male doctors -- Dr. Carhart and Dr. Hern -- and we reached out to them first. We went out first and met them in person with no cameras and presented our idea of the film and they were both really amenable to it. I think a lot of what we talked about -- which was one of our goals of the film, originally -- was to humanize these doctors who have been so vilified by the anti-abortion movement. We wanted to show the different sides of them as people -- even if you don't agree with abortion, maybe these people shouldn't have to worry about being killed.
Dr. Carhart and Dr. Hern got involved pretty quickly but the two female doctors -- Dr. Robinson and Dr. Sella -- took about a year to decide to part of the film. We learned about them and reached out. They had worked closely with Dr. Tiller -- who never did any interviews except the one that you see briefly in the film -- and at first they said absolutely not. But we kept talking to them and eventually they agreed to let us come out and visit the clinic. Once we got to know them a little bit more in person and they were comfortable with us, they agreed to be a part of the film.
I think they really helped to emphasize the stories of the patients and the need to get those out into the world. So often that part of this situation is misunderstood -- the reason why a woman would seek a late-term abortion.
Dr. Hern with one of his patients.
The stories of the patients is what, to me, is the mystery when we talk about late-term abortions. But film shows a variety of experiences and patients seeking the help of these doctors.
We were lucky to be able to find people who would talk to us who were in a range of different circumstances. Honestly, I think we were pleasantly surprised by how much access we were given and how many people did agree to be part of the film. Of course, you always want to show an even wider range of cases and there are certainly cases out there that we didn't get into -- like the case where Dr. Carhart is reading an e-mail from a thirteen0year-old girl talking about drinking to forget her pregnancy and her talking about hurting herself. We used the e-mail in lieu of having a patient who is actually going through that.
There are so many different movies you can make on this subject, and we were happy and felt lucky with the amount of access that we got in the end.
Was there something you ultimately hoped to get out there through the making of After Tiller? I think first of all, it was to humanize these doctors. Then there's the fact that abortion debate in this county has been so much of a shouting match and people are so sort of locked into their ways of thinking about it. But at the same time, we haven't really heard the voices of the people who are most intimately involved, which are the doctors and the patients who are having these procedures.
I think refocusing the conversation on the actual realities of the patients' lives and the doctors' work and focusing less on the abstract political debates and doing it in a way that sort of lowers the tone of the conversation. I think allowing people from both sides of the issue sort of watch the film and be able to feel like they've taken something out of it maybe have their perspective shifted or challenged in some way.
Have you gotten any feedback from those on the pro-life side of the issue?
Yes. When we were doing a lot of film festivals, we often had people come up to us after screenings and share that they were pro-life or anti-abortion but I didn't realize how complicated this was; sometimes some people felt like they could understand certain situations. I mean it wasn't people coming up and saying, "Oh, I'm changing sides now," but it was sort of hearing that people were able to empathize more with people who are in the position of needing an abortion or doing the work of providing abortions for women.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.