Tony Kaye’s 2006 documentary Lake of Fire could have been an American masterpiece, and the definitive film about abortion. Nevertheless, the director of the outstanding American History X has made the most comprehensive, insightful, and inflammatory documentary about every aspect of abortion one might conceive of.

Any film that manages to make Noam Chomsky sound reasonable has accomplished something, and every American should take the time to watch this groundbreaking film. Although Kaye spends far too much time marginalizing most (not all) Right-to-Lifers as right-wing religious zealots, Pro-choice advocates get some deserved scrutiny as well.

Shot entirely with a clinical, distanced tone in lush black-and-white photography, Kaye manages several on-camera interviews with advocates on both sides of the abortion debate. Every person in the film takes a passionate, committed stand. And although it takes patience, thoughtful viewers will be forced to question the views of almost everyone involved on either side. Almost every salient issue is at least touched on –science, philosophy, morality, ethics, public policy, the likelihood and danger of backroom abortions if they were made illegal, the possibility that life begins at conception – it’s pretty much all there. A few important things are missing, though, such as a legal analysis as to the reality of Roe v. Wade ever actually being overturned, or abortion being banned by constitutional amendment.

The most compelling parts of the film occur in the first hour, and during the final 45 minutes. Most intriguing is the revelation (to me, anyway) that Norma McCorvey (“Roe” in Roe V. Wade) went from being the pro-choice side of this famous case and working in an abortion clinic, to converting to Christianity, becoming a pro-life advocate, and coming out as gay.

The final segment of the film follows a young woman as she goes to get an abortion. Although committed to the procedure, afterwards it become quite apparent that this woman feels tremendously conflicted about her actions – at best.

Indeed, pro-choice advocates owe a duty to themselves to watch all of the graphic footage presented of the removal and disposal of fetal tissue. Kaye does the pro-life movement a great service by not flinching from the truth. Alas, his presentation of the pro-life movement’s personalities is entirely in contradiction to those on display on the choice side. The latter are presented, with but a few exceptions, as rational, caring, thoughtful individuals. The former are literally shown as the stereotypical nut jobs.

Some Cinematic Stereotypes Persist

Regrettably, Kaye devotes almost the entire second hour of the film to these zealots and it detracts from the film, sending us off into Crazyland rather than staying grounded in reality.

Regrettably, there is one other aspect of the film that Kaye ignores. It is a cornerstone of the debate that both sides ultimately miss, as they battle over the trees instead of the forest: personal responsibility. Except for rape, there is simply no reason why abortion should even be an issue. Contraception is cheap and readily available for both genders. That Kaye ignores this angle is amazing, considering how thorough the film is otherwise.

I occasionally write about the difference between popular art and high art. There are certain historical events and issues that can probably never be translated effectively as popular art, such as the Holocaust and 9/11. One of the criteria of high art is the removal of abstraction in a narrative, such that the cold face of reality is presented to the audience. We see this with documentary films like Shoah. The reverse is also true – the creation of an abstraction or impressionistic approach to reality in order to express a truth that could otherwise not be expressed.

Lake of Fire elevates the abortion debate above the level of abstraction, which is ultimately its greatest triumph. In high school, we were shown films of WWII Jewish corpses being bulldozed into mass graves by the Nazis, in order to bear witness to the Holocaust. You cannot understand the Holocaust unless you witness the documented atrocities in some form. Thus, I defy any pro-choice advocate to sit through the more graphic scenes in this film or, for that matter, challenge themselves to seek out true images of abortions or what fetuses look like at varying terms during pregnancy. Why? To bear witness for the cause they support.

Likewise, pro-life advocates need to understand the graphic images of women who attempted abortions on their own could be the outcome of their own advocacy. Then again, they also have the personal responsibility card on their side — such tragic outcomes would be vastly reduced even in the face of an abortion ban if people practiced personal responsibility.

Ticket Out of Your Comfort Zone

This is the other triumph of the film, and it’s almost enough to overwhelm the portrayal of the pro-lifers: it puts the fruits of the both movements right in their faces. Indeed, if you are pro-choice and you won’t watch the movie, or if you look away, it gives ammunition to the pro-life movement  – it is a tacit admission that perhaps what you are witnessing is the murder of a human being and you cannot bear to watch.

In this particular debate, pro-lifers have an advantage in that they proceed from the belief that life begins at conception and abortion is murder. Murder, as a matter of public policy, trumps free choice (you aren’t free to just murder someone). Pro-choice advocates, for the most part, speak from a position of abstraction. By grounding the argument as a matter of civil rights, they give themselves an out. It’s not necessary, they believe, to actually see any part of the abortion process, to witness what actually happens biologically, or be confronted with the results of their advocacy.

Prior to seeing the film, I was pretty staunchly pro-choice until the third trimester of pregnancy. Now … I’m not so sure. It’s given me a lot to think about and still lingers in my mind, despite seeing the film more than two months ago. If a film can challenge my beliefs, it’s a good thing. I find the cognitive dissonance terrifying, but I try not to run from it.

The film’s ultimate conclusion, however, is a grim one: it is an issue without any clear public policy resolution. The only thing abortion actually does, it appears, is divide.

About Lawrence Meyers

I've written many words. Some of them have even made sense. Some of them have been spoken by actors in TV shows. Others have just been viewed and, likely, scoffed at. All the better. New Yorker at heart. Devotee of Jung. Skeptic. Lover of cinema. Authority defier.

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