Within the already provocative and widely-debated topic of abortion law, there is the smaller but even more controversial occurrence of late-term abortions. Although many people adopt different parameters for what constitutes a "late-term abortion", Dr. George Tiller specialized in abortions performed during the third trimester (about 25 weeks). The procedure is only legal in 9 states, is generally only done when the physical or psychological health of either the mother or child is at risk, and makes up less than 1% of abortions performed in the United States. In 2009, because of his practice, George Tiller, was assassinated while attending church. Afterward, four friends and colleagues -- the only four in the entire country -- continue his work in the face of overwhelming pressure from religious and political forces.
It seems likely that those who are anti-abortion will not watch After Tiller, because they'll write it off as pro-abortion. It's a shame, too, because even if their views on abortion itself would likely stay the same, the optimist in me would like to believe they would be affected by what the film captures, and perhaps get a glimpse of what the view is like from the other side of the picket line. Co-directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson take great pains to avoid demonizing those who oppose abortion, even when those people's moral or religious righteousness gives way to intrusive and disturbing tactics. They don't because they simply don't have to: the stories and opinions of those involved, both the doctors and patients, speak for themselves.
The four doctors profiled in the film are Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. Shelley Sella, and Dr. Susan Robinson. All four knew Dr. Tiller, and all four stood firm in their resolve to continue providing care in the wake of his murder. Although each doctor provides some insight on how they came to be one of the only medical professionals who knew how to do this (and their fears, of course, at being the only ones left), the film is less interested in hearing their reasoning as feeling their reasoning. Dr. Robinson, in particular, describes the law in a previous state that required an extreme series of double-checks and objective agreement, and how her new state, which is far less strict, places a great deal of responsibility on her in deciding which patients to treat. No description of her thought process could convey as much as the look on her face as she listens to each woman's story, down to the toughest detail.
There's no question that After Tiller ultimately indicates the negative side of the religious right, which appears to make up the vast majority of anti-abortionists, but the Shane and Wilson are careful to allow those folks to indict themselves. Dr. Carhart describes a heartbreaking attack on his family's stable of horses. Over 20 burned to death in a fire that anti-abortionists ultimately laid claim to, rationalizing that his practice justified the murder of innocent animals. When Carhart moves to another state, people find the high school attended by the daughter of his new landlord and picket it with gruesome photos. Many compare the doctors to Satan, and not all draw the line in front of those having the abortions done, either. Although a few of these rallies are intimidating, many consist of only a couple of people standing outside one of the doctors' offices.
More than anything, After Tiller captures the complexity of these issues through those involved. Shane and Wilson are allowed to document several patients' stories (obscuring their faces through editing and camera angles), and each one faces a uniquely complicated road, and each one is generally overwhelmed with emotion. The lives of the doctors are also examined, and how their choice to perform what they believe is an important and necessary public service has transformed their entire existence. All four live with the knowledge that they, like Dr. Tiller, could be murdered for what they're doing, but having heard what their patients are going through or would have to go through were their child to be born is more than enough justification. The film captures the cruel irony that anti-abortionists work so hard to obscure from themselves, that their compassion for unborn children can only exist by disregarding or downplaying their compassion for the parents those children belong to. On the extreme end of an already touchy subject, After Tiller is elegantly simple, finding an emotional truth that might help put people in others' shoes, rather than preaching to the choir.
After Tiller arrives as a gatefold package that slides inside a matte slipbox, as per Oscilloscope's usual practice (no plastic involved other than the disc). A film like this is hard to summarize in a piece of key art, and one chosen here is a bit subdued, a photo of Dr. Hern hugging one of his patients. THe package is a somber black, and the pictures chosen for the gatefold are similarly dark. As always, a postcard for membership into Oscilloscope's DVD / Blu-Ray by mail subscription service is included inside the package.
The Video and Audio
Documentaries are always a fairly straightforward audiovisual affair, and After Tiller is no different, arriving with a basic 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio. That said, most of the non-archival footage looks very good, with brightness and detail that one can hardly imagine would be significantly increased by HD, but some footage appears to have been captured on slightly lower-quality equipment, which is indicated by ghosting, aliasing, and blown-out whites. The stereo audio is purely functional, carrying the dialogue, limited music, and occasional directionality in non-interview scenes. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
An interview with directors Shane and Wilson (14:13) is an interesting look into the genesis of the film (Shane was a filmmaker, and Wilson wasn't), the way the film's style was partially dictated by the patients who sat for interviews, the doctors' interest in highlighting the patients over themselves, the division of work, and their experiences at the protests. On one hand, if they thought a video piece was preferable, I appreciate the brevity in a way, but the clip is so good it's almost a shame they didn't record a full-length commentary.
"One of Four" (16:21) is a follow-up interview with Dr. Susan Robinson, who offers a more traditional overview of her history as a doctor and her thoughts on the field. Although some of the information in this interview is repeated from the feature film, Robinson expounds on the kind of reasons patients come to her looking for help (specifically why many of her patients were unable to get help sooner and thus require a late-term abortion), not to mention she talks about the film itself and the experience of making it.
The third and final interview (24:32) on the disc is with Dr. Tiller himself. The interview footage was filmed for a film called Voices of Choice back in 2002, and the material is identified as footage that wasn't used in the finished film. This is a particularly great supplement, as the film itself doesn't really have room for Dr. Tiller himself, except through brief memories of him shared by the other four doctors. As one might expect, he talks at length about his history as a physician, what led him to performing late-term abortions, as well as his personal faith.
The disc wraps up with a Sundance Film Festival Q&A (20:32) with all four doctors, which Shane and Wilson mention in their interview. I've seen plenty a film festival Q&A in my time, and to say that the questions are not always great is an understatement, but the audience at Sundance is fantastic, and this is another top-notch addition to the disc.
The disc rounds out with an educational guide, provided in the form of a .pdf, which can be downloaded using a computer. Trailers for The Garden, Bananas*, If a Tree Falls, and These Birds Walk are included on the main menu under "Oscilloscope Releases", and an original theatrical trailer for After Tiller is also included.
After Tiller is not another documentary rehashing points about abortion. Instead, it focuses on the stories of those who perform it and those who have had it performed, creating a plea to those who oppose the procedure not to change their views necessarily, but to understand that these people are not oblivious to the weight of the choices they're making, or emotional distress over the decision. It's a greatly moving documentary that will affect both sides of the debate, should they be willing to watch it. The DVD is also packed with four lengthy, excellent supplementary features. Highly recommended.
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