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.
A door that you had seen only from the outside now closes as you watch from within; and with this elegant transition, the film moves to the other side of Twelfth Street, where there’s a lot of peering through the slats of Venetian blinds, scanning the screens of surveillance monitors and leafing through a scrapbook of news reports about the violent deaths of abortion doctors. (The film was made in the wake of the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller.) With the picketers pressing within a millimeter of the legal limit whenever Arnold drives in or out of the clinic, and with some of the angrier protesters walking up to the windows to bellow at the women inside, the possibility of violence is part of the atmosphere, like the Florida humidity. You see how it weighs on Candace—though she bears up well with her gentle, solicitous manner and comfortably plump physique. A whim of the God of documentaries: the abortion provider turns out to be the most maternal figure in 12th & Delaware.
So tense and compelling is the film in its matched claustrophobias—moral on one side of the street, physical on the other—that one scene even made me wonder whether Ewing and Grady had needed to intervene. An ethical borderline was clearly crossed when the most threatening of the antiabortion protesters, a hulking man with a shaved head and a propensity for rage, managed to identify one of the abortion doctors. It was standard practice, you see, for Arnold to pick up the doctors at remote locations (in this case the parking lot of a Wal-Mart) and throw a sheet over them, which the doctors would not remove until the clinic’s garage door had safely closed. This system broke down on a day when the filmmakers took a ride with Hulk and witnessed him locate an abortion doctor’s car and write down its license plate number. With great satisfaction, he remarked (on camera) that he was going to pass this information to some people who would "know what to do with it."
I asked Ewing, via e-mail, whether she and Grady had warned the doctor. "We first immediately investigated whether an illegal act had taken place in our presence and if we were required to contact the authorities," she replied. "It turned out the pro-life subject had not broken the law but we felt compelled to contact the appropriate party who would inform the doctor and the driver to change their meeting point."
That making 12th & Delaware could put Ewing and Grady into this situation—and that watching the result can in effect do the same to you—is a sign of the film’s strength and daring. The sign of its terrible sorrow is that the filmmakers could not step in for the people who most needed intervention: women pregnant at 15, or pregnant by men they feared, or pregnant with their sixth child when they had no resources for the existing five. These were, these are, the women caught between Lotierzo’s version of help on one side of Twelfth Street and a line of angry demonstrators on the other. For them, the best Ewing and Grady could do was bear witness.
You should, too.
If 12th & Delaware brings up the question of documentarians’ relationship to their subjects, then Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s war film Restrepo—another selection of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, as well as a prizewinner at Sundance and a new theatrical release—makes you wonder about another issue: the relationship of a documentarian to his audience.
Shot (there’s the exact word for you) in 2007–08 in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, Restrepo gives an unadorned, soldier’s-eye view of the experiences of a platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, as it patrols the lush and relentlessly hostile landscape, establishes a strategically important but isolated and exposed outpost (just a ring of sandbags on a hilltop at first, plus a barrel in which to burn feces) and comes under fire from all directions, all the time. Intercut with these action scenes are affecting interviews with some of the soldiers, recorded elsewhere after their deployment ended, in which you encounter these men in a reflective mood. But the moments that are more likely to come to mind when you think back on Restrepo are the ones of adrenaline-fueled chaos, with both the soldiers and the filmmakers scrambling for their lives.
No one should underestimate the achievement of Hetherington and Junger in bringing back this footage; nor should the implications of their film be overlooked, despite the filmmakers’ avowal that they weren’t out to make a political statement. The platoon’s commanding officer, Capt. Dan Kearney—the sort of smart, solid, responsible soldier you would want in the field—sums up the dilemma of the US campaign against the Taliban when he explains that he’s asking the Korengal villagers to push out their own family members. The frustration of the campaign, and its horror, is written on Kearney’s face after he calls down a helicopter strike on a supposed Taliban haven and learns that he’s inadvertently killed five civilians, young children among them. Soon the radio chatter tells him that the village elders, with whom he’d been meeting regularly, are calling for jihad.
The conclusion you might draw is that the Taliban and their families live in the Korengal Valley, whereas the Americans are just visiting. They set up their temporary outposts at great risk, fight to survive the deployment and then (with undisguised joy and relief) are rotated back home, having "done our job" without necessarily changing much of anything.
You, documentary viewer, are probably just visiting, too. Like the majority of Americans today, you are remote from combat and relatively untouched by it. But because the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are America’s first point-and-shoot video wars, you can watch Gunner Palace, Occupation: Dreamland, Severe Clear or now Restrepo and dip for a few minutes into the reality of our volunteer soldiers, much as the soldiers dip for a period into the reality of the lands they occupy.
On the principle that it’s better to know than not to know, I have to figure that the filmmakers are rendering us a service. But the refrain that runs through all these films—the boastful complaint that civilians just can’t understand a soldier’s life—might remind us that even with documentarians as brave and committed as Hetherington and Junger, the service is limited.
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Short Takes: I have struggled to understand why I should have sat through Michael Winterbottom’s film version of the irredeemably filthy novel The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson—whether the excuse was the chic nostalgia for West Texas in the 1950s, the even more chic overlay of cheap Freudianism and Italian opera, or the beyond-chic luxuriance of Winterbottom’s images of women being beaten to a pulp—but I can’t find a shred of justification for the experience, and I certainly can’t recommend it as a date movie. Maybe I was supposed to learn that just because a man is a cop doesn’t mean he’s gentle and law-abiding—though I probably didn’t have to be told as much, having grown up in Chicago. Maybe the lesson was that a little kink for spanking can get seriously out of hand. Or maybe the real take-away is that when characters die horribly, a filmmaker probably should not punctuate the effect with jaunty steel-guitar music. Yes, Casey Affleck gave a sensational performance. So what?
The film I can recommend as a date movie for all audiences—lesbian, gay, transgender and straight—is Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. It’s the story of a lovely but not so gracefully aging couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), their teenage children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) and the kids’ biological father (Mark Ruffalo): a guy who made a paid deposit to a sperm bank years ago, and now blunders his way into a bigger and bigger role in the lives of people he never even knew existed. The entirely credible setting, in Los Angeles, is on the border between bourgeois respectability and gourmet-organic scruffiness. The characters, as they awkwardly and sometimes guiltily reconfigure themselves, are equally credible, as well as funny, touching and just irritating enough. I can’t say that the script (by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg) is entirely free of cheap jokes, but I promise that they’re only as cheap as they should be.