It's a near impossibility to make a calm, focused documentary about a subject that inflames passions as much as abortion, but director Tony Kaye has almost achieved that goal with Lake of Fire. Few issues epitomize the sharp divisions in American society more, yet Kaye eschews righteous indignation and opts for a cool, methodical approach.
He's compiled news coverage (everything from legislation battles to clinic violence) along with footage of demonstrations, and weaves them together with an impressive array of interviews — activists and academics, philosophers and lawyers, journalists and politicians, nurses and protesters — that are notable for their thoughtful observations.
Kaye (who also directed American History X) toiled on Lake of Fire for 15 years, and he projects the resolute tenacity of someone who's been in the trenches. There's a sharp intelligence at work here, a need to get beyond the pro-choice versus pro-life rhetoric and explore abortion itself, and to understand how this issue is used as a catalyst to further specific political and religious agendas.
While not a documentary filmmaker by trade, Kaye's a creator of potent imagery (commercials and music videos), and there's a formal beauty to his lustrous black-and-white cinematography. This aesthetic decision also influences the film's tone, which is soothing and dispassionate. Everyone, from women's clinic staffers to Christian fundamentalists, is viewed with the same unwavering eye. The lack of fiery color also helps when Kaye's camera accompanies two women as they have abortions.
The first is the most shocking: Twenty weeks is roughly halfway through a normal pregnancy, and the fetus — whose parts the doctor examines afterward — is startlingly familiar. In fact, it resembles the graphic footage anti-abortion groups use to frighten pregnant women out of the procedure.
Coming very early in Lake of Fire, it's a visceral reminder that abortion can't be discussed simply in the realm of theory, but it's only at the end of the film that Kaye explores the emotional impact and ramifications on a woman's life when he follows the troubled Stacey as she goes through counseling and a vacuum aspiration.
Yet when it comes to Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, whose petition triggered the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion, Kaye falters badly. McCorvey, now 60, was ill-equipped to be the face of a movement, and her need for a strict belief system led her to eventually join the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue.
Throughout Lake of Fire, Kaye meticulously counterbalances the most extreme comments of his interviewees by placing them in a larger social context. But he lets McCorvey's assertions go unchecked, particularly when he visually reinforces her claim that mutilated "babies" were stacked in a clinic's refrigerator with a shot of stillborn infants.
It's a small moment in a lengthy documentary, but it sharply undercuts the intellectual rigor that distinguishes this film from the ideological sloganeering that keeps the abortion debate heated. Despite that, Lake of Fire is a respectful inquiry by someone who will never have to make this very difficult choice himself.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, (5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7:30 pm Thursday, Nov. 1, and 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Nov. 2-3.