When I was a little kid, I used to think it was weird that we called black and white films “black and white.” See, they weren’t really black and white, I had reasoned, and it was actually fairly rare that anything within them would ever be totally black or totally white. Rather, they were a subtle rainbow of grays, so shouldn’t we call them “gray and gray” movies?
American History X director Tony Kaye’s incendiary abortion documentary Lake of Fire, the result of an epic 18-year creation process, is shot in 35 black and white, and the nature of the term has never been more appropriate. Whatever our views on abortion, too many of us tend to see the issue in black and white—certainly most of the people Kaye captures on film do—but in actuality, it’s anything but, a point Kaye drives home with nearly volcanic force by the end of this extraordinary work.
The length of time Kaye spent making it allows us to witness the issue, the activists and the shifting frontlines firsthand over the course of decades; he covers a March For Life event in 1992 at the dawn of the Clinton administration, and also the recent South Dakota statute that returned the state’s laws to a pre-Roe v. Wade status. He’s not just summing up the recent history of the abortion conflict in America, he’s seemingly filming it live as it unfolds.
In addition to footage at the ’92 rally, he interviews pro-life activists who murdered doctors before and/or after they committed their acts, a nurse who was caught in a clinic explosion, a police officer shot by another activist, the woman who was the “Jane Roe” in Roe v. Wade and her surprising conversion. He spends times with the street preachers and people on the street. He interviews women in the waiting room at a clinic, shooting the backs of their heads as they tell him why they’re there.
It’s powerful, occasionally quite shocking stuff. And what’s most shocking is the degree to which the film manages a sort of objectivity, or at least manages to refrain from having a pro-choice or pro-life stance (I assume if you would assign either label to your self, you’ll find quite a bit about the film that is objectionable).
The pro-life side certainly seems to take a beating in the film, mostly because there isn’t really a positive way to spin shootings and bombings is a positive light; the oft-repeated line of reasoning that abortionists are murderers and therefore must be killed doesn’t exactly stand up to a moment or two’s thought, you know?
And, of course, a lot of them just seem like raving lunatics. Is that too charged a term? Hmm, how about “coo coo banana birds?” Even forgiving the many times that the legalization of abortion is referred to as worse than the holocaust, there’s the man who hopes that when we begin going out into the universe and contacting aliens there we’ll be a pro-life nation, or the man who mentions how the Satan worshippers he sees at clinics who barbecue babies in front of him, or the man who calls the president “Whathisname… “Clint-tahn? Bill Clint-tahn?”
The pro-choice side seems saner and in possession of stronger reasoning, but also often seem snide and silly, too willing to laugh at any and all arguments against abortion and too unwilling to even have a conversation about it.
And Kaye captures on film grisly scenes of abortion more horrifying than anything you see on those billboard trucks that drive around town. Actually, Kaye plays a snippet of a film entitled Hard Truth which was made by the pro-life movement to serve as visual propaganda, and it completely pales in comparison to a sequence of Kayes.’ In it, he interviews a doctor who has just finished performing the procedure, and the doctor casually explains what he’s doing while sifting through a pile of aborted body parts in a pan. He’s checking to make sure it’s all there, he says, and we see him holding aloft an arm here, an eye there. (This was one of several scenes where the black and white format is particularly welcome, as it deemphasizes the gore factor a bit).
Authors, philosophers and theologians offer talking head interviews, offering discourse that’s thankfully above the fray and injecting the film with ideas and questions far beyond the normal ones. For example, instead of just “When does life begin?”, one philosopher asks, “Yes, killing is wrong, but why is it wrong?” Additionally, Nat Hentoff talks about the “seamless garment” of a true pro-life philosophy, a more reasonable-sounding than usual Noam Chomsky erects parameters for real debate (i.e. if you’re completely fucking crazy, then you’re not allowed to participate), and Alan Dershowitz crystallizes what it is that makes abortion such a tough issue, saying emphatically, “Everybody is right when it comes to the issue of abortion.”
And so too is everybody wrong.
The last half hour of the film is about as powerful a scene as I’ve seen put to film, as Kaye follows a woman through the entire process of an abortion, from her ride to the clinic to her facing the camera afterwards.
It’s not an easy scene to watch. And it’s not an easy film to watch.
Watch it anyway.
Lake of Fire screens at the Wexner Center’s film/video theater Tuesday night, January 22, at 7:30 p.m. For more info, click to wexarts.org.