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Oscilloscope Laboratories

SEEING WHAT THEY WANT TO SEE: Dr. Robinson listens to a patient in After Tiller.
Oscilloscope Laboratories


Smiling barbarians

After Tiller tries hard to put a kind and gentle face on late-term abortion

The documentary opens with late-term abortionist Leroy Carhart squirting ultrasound gel on a pregnant belly and looking at the baby on the screen. He tells the mother, lying on the exam table, “You’re welcome to watch or not. … See what you want to see.” The woman, who is obviously far along in her pregnancy, is sobbing, and Carhart gives her tissues. You can’t see her face. 

After Tiller follows the four known late-term abortionists remaining in the United States after the 2009 murder of George Tiller, a late-term abortionist in Kansas. There’s LeRoy Carhart in Maryland, Warren Hern in Colorado, as well as Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson at the same center in New Mexico (they have recently trained a young woman to carry on their practice). The four do abortions around 28 or 30 weeks of gestation–when a baby can open her eyes. In the film the four are unsung heroes doing the work that no one else has the stomach for, as if their work was something like amputating a gangrenous limb. The film attempts to normalize what is almost unanimously unpopular in the United States: only 14 percent of Americans think third-trimester abortions should be legal, according to 2013 numbers from Gallup. The directors, Lana Wilson and Martha Shane, openly believe the practice should be legal.

At the premiere screening in New York (promoted by NARAL Pro-Choice New York), Wilson brought up a proposed ban on abortions after 20 weeks in Albuquerque, N.M., which she described as “incredibly disturbing.” She wants the film to remove the “shame and stigma around this,” she said. The directors mentioned that some pro-choice groups were “nervous” about the film. After all, even the most pro-abortion Democrats avoid discussing late-term abortions (check out House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s response after the Gosnell trial). But if it’s possible to persuade the incredulous public that third-trimester abortions are somehow acceptable, this film would be a step in that direction. How could the practice be so wrong if such nice people are doing it?

First, here is what is good about this documentary: No unbiased, let alone pro-life, filmmaker would ever get such steady access into these late-term abortion centers. And while you’re spending time inside the centers, you have to think about what is actually happening there. You don’t see the women’s faces, but you hear them discuss their decisions to go through with a third-trimester abortion, even as you see them crying and cradling their bellies. At one point a staffer explains the process of a third-trimester abortion to a woman over the phone: that they will euthanize the baby with an injection into its heart, and then deliver it “stillborn,” an incredibly passive term.

“The woman delivers a baby and it’s a stillborn. And that’s hard to deal with,” said Sella, who works at the New Mexico center with Robinson. “I think the reason I’ve struggled is I think of them as babies. I don’t think of them as a fetus. … You can’t say, ‘That’s some tissue.’ It’s a baby.” But she goes on: “It’s inside the mother and she can’t handle it for many, many extreme and desperate reasons. Unless you understand what’s going on for the woman, it’s impossible to support it, how could you? It sounds barbaric.”

Wilson purposefully began the film with stories from a number of women seeking abortions in cases of severe fetal anomalies “to get people over the hump of third trimester abortions,” she said. Then the film moves on to cases where the mothers just don’t want the babies. There is a woman whose baby would be mentally retarded. Then there is a teenager who doesn’t want the baby, even though her boyfriend’s family said they would adopt it. Kudos to the directors for showing one of the staffers at the New Mexico center objecting to this particular abortion. Robinson struggles but decides to go ahead with the abortion, saying that women must make the ethical decision themselves.

In the background of all of this, pro-lifers are a quiet threat, starting with the news clips from Tiller’s murder that share tweets celebrating Tiller’s death. The depiction is unfair because every major pro-life group condemned the murder of Tiller. The four doctors regularly talk about the prospect of vigilantes coming to murder them, and Hern refers to pro-lifers as “terrorists.”

By contrast all four of the abortionists are endearing in front of the camera; nice people who must therefore be doing explicable things. Hern jokes with his elderly mother about “no running the halls,” and kisses her. He goes on a hike with his wife and stepson. Carhart’s wife has a hilarious deadpan eye roll. Robinson has a sort of Julia Child charm. Wilson said she wanted to “humanize” the four because they are often political caricatures. Humanizing the babies, on the other hand, apparently wasn’t relevant: The question of when life begins is philosophical, Wilson said.

Everything is a counterpoint to the grisly Kermit Gosnell story, though the filmmakers filmed before his trial and conviction. The centers are warm, friendly places where the abortionists sit and listen to the patients’ stories and nod along sympathetically. They are professionals. They don’t break rules. They mention adoption as an option, to at least one patient.

All the mothers explain their decision to abort by saying it is in the best interest of the baby. 

“I’d rather her not suffer,” said one mother.

“Are you OK with your decision?” Sella asks another mother, whose only reason for a late-term abortion is that she had put off getting one earlier.

“I’m getting there. … Would [God] forgive me? Would I forgive myself?” she responds.

“God wants you to be OK, don’t you think?” says Sella.

Like a bad friend, the film asks women not what is right but what is best for you. The directors are only seeing what they want to see.

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NARA/Smoking Dogs Films

NARA/Smoking Dogs Films


The March

It’s difficult to dramatize the process of organization, even organization of an event as historic and important as the 1963 March on Washington. But PBS tried with The March.

The hour-long documentary begins with the almost unthinkable police-led violence in Birmingham, Ala., and ends with March speaker and now U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., celebrating progress made since 1963. The perspective is limited, making it easy to dismiss the events of the past as the past.

But this year marks 50 since the March on Washington, and the civil rights movement is invoked more frequently than ever. Current movements, from gay rights to Occupy Wall Street, use it as a comparison point, and understanding the success of the March on Washington is probably the only way to evaluate their claims.

The March on Washington is remembered now as a gathering, but the real accomplishment was the effort it took to plan it. The March includes much of that behind-the-scenes work, including several threats to its success that could have derailed or obliterated the event. Unfortunately, the editing does not always make the solutions clear.

Denzel Washington provides neutral narration, allowing old footage of organizers and new interviews with people involved to stand out as the real drama.

The stakes seem realistically high during much of the film’s dissection of the event. But then someone like Oprah, who was 9 at the time, appears on screen crediting her accomplishments to the 10 hours that 200,000 people crowded the National Mall. Once again it becomes easy to forget that the March was the most visible event of the civil rights movement, but a symbol of change, not change itself.

And perhaps that is why today’s frequent rallies are passionate but often haphazard and a flicker on the national radar.

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Archive Photos/Getty Images

Archive Photos/Getty Images


Sanitized life

Public broadcasting’s look at Muhammad offers everything but a critical look at Islam’s founder

Was Muhammad a force of good or evil? That’s the question British author, broadcaster, and professing Muslim Rageh Omaar promises to investigate in the early moments of the new documentary, The Life of Muhammad, airing on PBS beginning August 20. If Omaar seems to have a conflict of journalistic interest regarding the subject, it’s no more so than the film’s director Faris Kermani, writer Ziauddin Sardar, or executive producer Aaqil Ahmed (also the Head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC, and the man who originally commissioned the project). All are Muslims.

This isn’t to suggest that those who follow Islam shouldn’t have had roles—even major roles—in a documentary aimed at the general public about Islam’s founder. It’s only to point out that almost no one associated with the movie seems to have been in a position to approach the question with much skepticism. Even the name of the production company—Crescent Films—betrays a marked partiality. (It’s hard to imagine, for example, public broadcasting airing an investigative series into the life of Christ from an outfit called Ichthys Productions.)

There’s no doubt, from the outset, that the filmmakers are partial. Within the first few minutes Omaar explains that out of deference to Muslim standards, the three-part series will avoid depicting any images of Muhammad—whether in artwork or in dramatic reenactments. It shows the same sensitivity to his wives. We see paintings of the women, but their faces are carefully whited out. 

The Life of Muhammad is well-paced and visually arresting, thanks to locations in Mecca and Medina, but a pall of propaganda hangs over the entire production. With the exception of a few brief appearances by Jihad Watch’s Robert Spencer, whose sound bites are limited to what must be the least critical things he’s ever said about Islam, most of the experts Omaar consults display a sympathy for the religion as naked as his own.

Nearly every element of modern Islam that Westerners find troubling is, the array of talking heads assure us, the result of either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of the Quran. Muhammad never intended for anyone to be coerced into converting to Islam, and Sharia was by no means intended to rule civil societies. By his own example, Muhammad meant for women to be equal to men, and he never required them to cover their heads or faces. Nor did he view Jews with enmity, considering them, instead, brothers of an earlier branch of his own belief system. And he certainly never intended for Muslims to prosecute a war of religion by targeting innocents. “The Quran says that if the enemy asks for peace, you must lay down your arms immediately and accept any terms however disadvantageous,” author Karen Armstrong informs us.

All of this leaves the viewer with one glaring and glaringly unanswered question—if all this is true, why are so many of this religion’s adherents getting it so publicly wrong?

The film’s characterization of Muhammad as a prophet of peace—indeed a prophet of outright self-abnegation—might be more persuasive if those who espouse a very different sort of Muhammad were also given a full hearing. But The Life of Muhammad doesn’t bother with the “extremists” who hold more hard-line views of jihad until the last five minutes of the last episode. Then, though they only have approximately 30 seconds to express their views, two young Muslim radicals sound (though certainly disturbing), intelligent, consistent, and not at all as if they’re ignorant of what their faith teaches.

Omaar and his scholars speak often throughout the three hours about how the “enemies of Islam” distort the tenets of its founder in order to attack it, and that Muslims have never elected anyone who advocates extremism to represent them. The filmmakers might think about mentioning that to the Egyptians, Iranians, and Turks, to name a few recent examples.

Listen to Megan Basham discuss The Life of Muhammad on The World and Everything in It:

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