Filmmakers Stephen Fell and Will Thompson provide an insiders perspective on the pro-life movement in their first documentary feature Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion. Despite the title, and DVD distributor First Run Features' partisan tagline How the Pro-Lifers are Winning, Fell and Thompson strive for objectivity allowing the pro-life activists to speak for themselves.
Unborn in the USA documents the range of pro-life activists from violent Army of God extremists who advocate, and sometimes commit, attacks on abortion clinics and physicians, to a pacifist Catholic priest who offers rewards for the conviction of fellow pro-lifers who use violence. Most of the interviewees though fall somewhere in between.
The longest pieces focus on the power of persuasion targeted at three groups: college students; the general populace; and, women seeking abortions. Fell and Thompson document Christian-college students trained to convert ambivalent and pro-choice students through rational and sympathetic dialogue. They also show more strident pro-lifers who take their messages to wider audiences through street protests, as well as even more extreme activists that do everything short of violence to entice, coerce, shame, ridicule, and intimidate women into not getting abortions.
Interestingly, all these groups from the soft-sell to the hard-sell make extensive use of billboards and placards showing photos of aborted fetuses to make their point. Although it's not clear if these images have much persuasive effect, repeatedly these images illicit extremely powerful negative reactions from seemingly irrational opponents who shout down or physically attack the pro-life activists. The filmmakers trace these graphic images to their source, Monica Miller. Ms. Miller recovered nearly 3000 aborted fetuses from abortion clinic dumpsters in the late '80s. Her photos of these aborted fetuses have been gracing pro-life placards ever since.
Though most of Fell and Thompson's choices for interview subjects were reasonable, a few don't work well. An interview with a woman who handcrafts dolls of unborn children mostly for women mourning miscarriages, but occasionally for women who've come to regret abortions seems unnecessary, while a visit to a large Christian-right telemarketer who provides fund-raising services to both the pro-life movement and to George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign seems ripe with possibilities but plays flat. Finally, repeated usage of footage from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ appears intended to demonstrate how the Christian-right is increasingly using gory imagery to convey its messages, but the attempt is out of step with the objective documentary approach of the rest of the film.
Beyond the clear marketing of Unborn in the USA by First Run Features to a pro-choice audience there are other indications that Fell and Thompson's sympathies do not lie with the pro-lifers. Intertitles are used to both correct erroneous or unsubstantiated claims made by pro-lifers, for example that there's a demonstrable link between abortion and increased risk of breast cancer, and to suggest that pro-lifers are curbing abortion rights through judicial activism by Bush's appointees to the Supreme Court. Ironically then, the few pro-choice voices that make it into the film are belligerent and irrational young people attacking the pro-life message.
The quality of cinematography is decidedly low, but servicable. Though it never looks pretty or in any way artistic, the camera generally captures the action in some jittery fashion though there are notable exceptions, as for example when a street confrontation escalates from bitter words to physical violence and the camera remains tightly framed on the edges of the conflict.
Though Unborn in the USA was shot on standard-quality DV and suffers from macro-blocking and digital noise, First Run Features should be commended for anamorphically enhancing the 1.66:1 image.
No subtitles are offered.
The disc sports a fairly good 2.0 audio track which appears to faithfully render the original audio recordings.
The most interesting extra on this disc is follow-up interviews with four of the pro-life activists featured in the film. Three of the four are generally pleased with the final film, but the fourth, Monica Miller who photographed the aborted fetuses, is extremely displeased with the film and with the reviews of the films. Miller faults the filmmakers and the reviewers for losing sight of the fact that the pictures are not just abstract images intended to merely provoke, but are testimony to the slaughter of unborn children.
Additional extras include deleted scenes which provide one additional storyline of a pro-life advocate who works the fence line at an abortion clinic trying to get women to carry their fetuses to term. Finally, filmmaker biographies and a trailer gallery of other First Run Features DVDs are also provided.
For a first film that grew out of a college assignment, Fell and Thompson have done a good job. Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion provides a fresh and mostly fair look inside the pro-life movement, from the extreme to the mainstream. Fell and Thompson interview those set on winning the war on abortion through violence, and those hoping for change through reasoned persuasion. The filmmakers have been faulted from the right for not engaging the moral arguments against abortion and from the left for failing to give a coherent voice to the pro-choice movement, but these critics are asking for a film other than the one Fell and Thompson made.
Unborn in the USA is recommended viewing.