British-born filmmaker Tony Kaye (American History X) has received rave reviews for his 152-minute documentary about the divisive issue of abortion in America, Lake of Fire. The film has been promoted by distributor THINKFilm as "unquestionably the definitive work on the subject of abortion" and film critic Roger Ebert found it impossible to determine which side Kaye was on. This is a bit much. While Lake of Fire is a moving documentary that powerfully presents aspects of both sides of the abortion divide, it is neither viewpoint neutral nor definitive.
Kaye's views on abortion are no secret. In an online piece for London's Guardian Unlimited last October, Kaye wrote about still grieving the loss of a child aborted by his girlfriend thirty years ago, but nonetheless being pro-choice because he considers a woman's right to bodily autonomy to be preeminent. Even if Kaye had not explicitly stated his view, it shouldn't have been hard for Ebert to figure out; Kaye's ambivalent pro-choice viewpoint permeates every aspect of this documentary.
The title of the documentary, Lake of Fire, subtly demarcates the battle lines along religious grounds, and Kaye largely perpetuates this divide throughout the film. The title originates with Christian fundamentalist preacher, and former Ku Klux Klansman, John Burt who identifies the Lake of Fire as the place of punishment awaiting abortionists in Hell.
The majority of the anti-abortion advocates interviewed by Kaye are the stereotypical hardline fundamentalist Evangelicals or ultra-conservative Roman Catholics. These men, and they are mostly men, repeatedly espouse violent and misogynistic messages of eternal damnation and earthly retribution. On a picket line outside an abortion clinic, one Roman Catholic priest declares of the clinic's physician, "We pray for the baby killer everyday. We want him to go to heaven . . . but we want him there soon."
Several interviewees go further than merely praying for the death of abortion providers. On another picket line, Paul Hill earnestly declares that all abortionists and blasphemers should be executed. Hill's interpretation of blasphemers includes anybody that so much as mutters "God damn it." What is particularly chilling about this interview is that Paul Hill later did murder an abortion provider and his bodyguard in Pensacola Florida, a crime for which the remorseless Hill was executed in 2002.
Kaye further uses the statements and actions of other anti-abortion zealots and madmen, particularly Eric Rudolph, to link the anti-abortion movement with anti-globalism and anti-homosexual agendas. In all, Kaye closely considers the actions of four anti-abortion murders (Hill, Rudolph, Michael Griffin and John Salvi). Kaye's focus on the extreme fringe of the anti-abortion movement misrepresents the depth and weight of the anti-abortion movement as a whole which is predominately non-violent.
Kaye does provide some interviews with, or footage of, less radical anti-abortion advocates, including Norma McCorvey (pro-choice plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, now full-time anti-abortion crusader), and former Republican presidential candidates Alan Keys and Pat Buchanan, but these figures come off as intellectual lightweights incapable of making a persuasive case against abortion that doesn't rely on religious dogma.
The one thoughtful articulation of a pro-life position comes from Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff who succinctly articulates the "consistent ethic of life" position that treats human life as inviolable, and consequently finds euthanasia, capital punishment, and abortion unconscionable. While Hentoff is a heavyweight pro-life voice that deserves attention, the fact that the only reasonable voice for the anti-abortion side comes from a self described "Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer" unfairly gives the impression that there are no reasonable, intelligent, anti-abortion voices within the movement's religiously- and politically-conservative wings.
On the pro-choice side, Kaye interviews, or excerpts footage of, a number of thoughtful intellectuals including professors Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz and Peter Singer, former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, and liberal Catholic activist Francis Kissling. Collectively, these pro-choice advocates acknowledge the moral complexities and the biological uncertainties, and score points on the contradictions in a pro-life position that opposes abortion and birth control, but cares little for ending childhood poverty. Kaye's selection of interview subjects mistakenly suggests that nearly all the reasonable, rational voices are aligned on the side of pro-choice. Which side of the debate has the better arguments is a matter of debate, but undoubtedly it is not as one-sided as Lake of Fire suggests.
What gives Lake of Fire the gloss of being balanced for Ebert and many other reviewers is Kaye's graphic documentation of two abortion procedures. In the first, Kaye's camera follows an abortion procedure conducted on a woman in the 20th week of her pregnancy. The procedure itself is startling, but it is the post-extraction examination of the torn-apart fetus that is truly disturbing. As the physician shifts through a pan to make sure all parts of the fetus have been extracted, clearly visible are tiny fully-formed fingers and toes attached to severed limbs, and an eye bulging out of a socket attached to a collapsed skull fragment. Whatever allusions some viewers may have held that all aborted fetuses are merely blobs of tissue are shattered here.
Less graphic, but perhaps no less troubling, is the abortion provided to a 28-year-old woman identified as Stacey. Having gotten pregnant from unprotected, consensual sex, Stacey undergoes her fourth abortion. There's no doubt that she has had a hard life and is deserving of compassion and support, but there's also little question that she relies on abortion as an alternative to consistent contraception or voluntary sterilization.
Lake of Fire was made using top-grade 35mm black and white film stock. The original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is preserved and enhanced for widescreen. The whites shine with silvery luminescence and the blacks are deep and beautiful. The image appears to have perfect contrast, preserving a deep grain.
Lake of Fire provides an adequate but not stellar stereo audio track which occasionally suffers dropouts and distortions that resort to use of the subtitles to catch some bits of dialogue. The optional subtitles however are beautifully rendered, and appropriately sized, paced, and placed.
The only extra on this disc are forced trailers for other THINKfilm releases, and a theatrical trailer for Lake of Fire. The audio mix on the theatrical trailer is too loud.
Lake of Fire was a self-financed labor of love for Tony Kaye who produced, wrote, directed, and operated the camera. Seventeen years in the making, it is the most thorough documentary on the issue of abortion yet released. It is an important work that can serve to advance a dialogue between people of good will on both sides of the abortion debate, but it is not viewpoint neutral as many critics have suggested, nor is it the definitive film on the issue as its distributor suggests. It complements but does not supersede other important documentaries on the issue of abortion such as Stephen Fell and Will Thompson's
Unborn in the USA (2007).
Lake of Fire is recommended viewing.