The most suspenseful movie I have seen in a long time, with the most unsettling characters and the most devastating conclusion, recently enjoyed its New York theatrical premiere and then closed on the same evening. Ordinarily, I would call this an injustice; but there is really nothing unfair about the reception given so far to Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 12th & Delaware, unless it’s the assumption that a documentary selection of the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival (where this picture was the opening-night feature) must be the cinematic equivalent of boiled leafy vegetables. Yes, 12th & Delaware might be good for you. But given the film’s effect on the heart rate, I’d say the kind of good it delivers is closer to what you’d get from an aerobic workout—an effect you will be able to experience when HBO broadcasts the movie on August 2, as part of its new season of documentaries.
The topic is the campaign against abortion, as played out at the title intersection in Fort Pierce, Florida, on a street corner where tangles of low-slung electrical cables droop over shedlike ranch houses and their strips of sidewalk, a little more than 100 miles up from Miami along Interstate 95. Here, in a building that’s been painted orange so clients can spot it easily, a married couple, Candace and Arnold, have run an abortion clinic for many years; while more recently, across the street, a Catholic group has converted the facing property into something it calls a pregnancy care center. Listen to the members of the antiabortion group, and you hear that the center speaks on behalf of unborn children and persuades mothers not to commit a grievous sin. Watch what the center does, and you see that it mostly waylays the confused (who were looking for the clinic); offers free ultrasounds captioned "Hi Mommy" (along with medically inaccurate brochures and bloodcurdling video screenings); and provides a base for the day-long demonstrations and one-sided shouting matches that the group mounts across the street.
Granted, the characterization I’ve just given is based entirely on the evidence that Ewing and Grady chose to present in 12th & Delaware. But that’s just the point. Ewing and Grady won extraordinary, prolonged, close access to both the clients and the personnel of the pregnancy care center—notably its director, a petite, pinch-featured, middle-aged woman named Anne Lotierzo, who opened her consulting rooms to the filmmakers, walked around wearing their radio microphone (so her words could be picked up at a distance) and seems never to have bothered to watch what she said or did. Pretty much the whole first half of 12th & Delaware is shot among Lotierzo’s circle, and mostly within her pseudo clinic. In the course of this immersion into one local instance of the antiabortion movement, you see Lotierzo rig evidence, peddle falsehoods, browbeat and condescend. Anything goes, apparently, for reasons best articulated by Lotierzo’s spiritual adviser, Father Tom Euteneuer, when he explains (in a sermon delivered in church) that the fight is against "the powers of darkness." The abortion industry, he preaches, is "looking more and more like a diabolical religion"—a ritualized blood sacrifice offered on the perverse altar of an operating table. "There’s got to be demons involved in that."
From this detail and many others in the first half of 12th & Delaware, you may derive the unhappy lesson that the conflict over abortion probably will not be resolved by reasoned compromise. ("I know it will end," Lotierzo says. "I just don’t think it’s going to be…pretty.") From the second half of the film, shot in large measure within the abortion clinic, you may learn what it means to seek medical treatment, and give it, under siege.