Birthright: A War Story


In justice.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Michele Goodwin, Lynn Paltrow, Carole Joffe, David A. Grimes, Danielle Deaver, Rob Deaver, Monica Simpson, Casey Shehi, Katie Darovitz, Tarah Demant, Carol Tobias, G. William Orr, Loretta Ross, Faith Groesbeck, Rinar Dray, Jennie Lynn McCormick, Lori Friedman, Gabrielle Goodrick, Joan McGregor, Sister Carol Keehan, Ann Sharpe. Directed by Civia Tamarkin

 

It is sometimes difficult as a film reviewer to rise above the temptation of reviewing the subject of a documentary rather than the documentary itself. Some subjects are important and urgent and may dovetail with the political leanings of the reviewer. I’m a progressive liberal, like many film reviewers, and the subject of this film – the assault on reproductive rights by the pro-life movement – you would think would be something that is near and dear to my heart, and it is.

Tamarkin does a masterful job of explaining the genesis of the pro-choice movement and how we got into the situation we’re in now, going back to the works of Margaret Sanger all the way up through Roe v. Wade at which time the pro-choice movement essentially rested on their laurels which some activists interviewed here freely admit.

But to their credit, those on the other side never gave up. They rolled up their sleeves, took a critical look at why they lost their fight and changed their strategy. Even if one is a hardcore leftie like I am one must admire how the right has organized and strategized themselves into the position of power they now occupy. We watch as the Right to Life organization and Personhood movement – high level members of both are interviewed at length for the film to Tamarkin’s credit – shift the focus from the unborn to the health of the mother, changing the public’s perception of the entire movement. It’s truly a brilliant strategy. They then target state lawmakers on the right, getting laws enacted that chip away at the ability for lower income women to access safe and legal abortion, but also give the state chilling control over the entire reproductive process from the moment a woman becomes pregnant. One conservative lawyer expresses how this is completely at odds with the small government-individual rights conservatism he grew up with.

Tamarkin gives us most of the salient facts, including some anecdotal interviews showing that many young women today don’t even know what Roe v. Wade is. That should chill a lot of pro-choice advocates to the very bone. There are also tales of women caught in the crossfire of these draconian new laws, women who weren’t interested in an abortion. These heartbreaking tales are at the center of the movie like the woman whose placenta was punctured after 22 weeks; because her state had a law that a fetus could not be aborted after 20 weeks, she was made to carry the baby even though it was going to be without fully developed lungs or heart. She wasn’t even allowed to have labor induced because the baby wouldn’t have been viable. Talk about a catch-22 weeks. The baby only lived a few minutes after she gave birth to it.

There were other women who were forced to undergo C-sections against their will and without their permission, as well as women who were arrested and sent to jail because they had what was deemed a “suspicious” miscarriage. It’s hard not to get angry about these blatant intrusions into what should be a woman’s right to control what happens to her own body. Although they make no comment on it, the spokespeople with the opposing viewpoint seemed to be okay with this aptly termed “collateral damage.”

While Tamarkin ably ratchets up the outrage for the left side of the aisle, she makes some filmmaking missteps. The jazz-inflected score was too loud in the soundtrack and seemed at odds with the seriousness of the subject matter. It almost felt at times like the score was meant for a Discovery Channel documentary rather than a feature film – not knocking Discovery Channel programs but it’s a different kind of animal here.

I am not certain that this is going to win hearts and minds. It seems to me that in our echo chamber society that most people are not going to pay much attention to anyone or anything that sits outside their narrow field of view. Tamarkin doesn’t help matters by giving us an endless parade of talking heads all of whom are saying very much the same sorts of things. Still, those on the pro-choice side are going to find this useful and educational – while those on the pro-life side will likely call it propaganda. While it’s clear what side of the line Tamarkin falls on, I do give her props for at least trying to tell the complete story of a very complicated and polarizing issue that continues to be an important and explosive topic even now decades after the Supreme Court made their landmark decision.

REASONS TO GO: Guaranteed to make you angry if you are pro-choice. Effective time is given to pro-life viewpoints. The history of the reproductive rights fight is covered pretty thoroughly.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is a little annoying. There is a surfeit of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains adult themes, disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tamarkin was at one time an executive at CNN.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Tiller
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Circle

Advertisements

Pick of the Litter – July 2017


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

(EuropaCorp/STX) Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke. Based on the landmark graphic novel and brought to life by French director Luc Besson, this movie follows the exploits of Valerian and his partner in crime Laureline who are tasked with the assignment of protecting Alpha, an amazing city where thousands of sentient beings gather to share technologies, cultures and knowledge with one another. It is truly a city of peace but it has become threatened by an unknown force and it is up to the two agents to not only discover who the threat is coming from but head it off before the galaxy is plunged into an all-encompassing war. July 21

INDEPENDENT PICKS

City of Ghosts

(IFC/Amazon) Matthew Heineman. From the director of Cartel Land comes this extraordinary documentary which chronicles the attempts of citizen journalists in the occupied city of Raqqa who attempt to call attention of the world to the horrors being inflicted upon them by ISIS. Even when they leave their home, these courageous chroniclers are not safe. It’s a truly sobering look at the human toll of religious fanaticism. July 7

Bronx Gothic

(Grasshopper) Okwui Okpokwasili. This is a documentary account of performance artist Okpokwasili and her preparation and execution of the riveting and controversial piece Bronx Gothic. Attempting to bring the plight of black women to audiences who don’t understand it, Okpokwasili put her own body on the line night after night to make the pain of the black woman real. July 12

500 Years

(Paladin) Pamela Yates. The Mayans built an amazing civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula. Their descendants however faced extraordinary deprivation under Guatemalan President Jose Luis Rios Montt. Against all odds, the Mayan people stood up against his tyranny and against the violence being inflicted upon him and brought the dictator to trial. This is the amazing story about how an ancient people found their voice again. July 12

Birthright: A War Story

(Abramorama) Civia Tamarkin. It is no secret that abortion is an explosive topic of conversation in our country. Many women thought their rights to choose were protected thanks to Roe v. Wade but it has become clear in this era of conservative activism that is no longer true. Draconian laws have been enacted at the state and local level that have become so intrusive into the lives and reproduction of women that even some conservatives are uncomfortable. This documentary exposes the human cost of the Right to Life and the hypocrisy behind it. July 14

Chasing Coral

(Netflix) Andrew Ackerman, Mark Eakin, Luiz A. Rocha, Joanie Kleypas. From the team that brought us the sobering melting ice cap documentary Chasing Ice comes this new film that looks at the coral reefs, a vital part of the ocean’s ecosystem. The world’s coral reefs have been dying at a terrifying rate, including the Great Barrier Reef, the oldest living thing on the planet. All hope is not lost but time is running out and action is required. July 14

Amnesia

(Film Movement) Marthe Keller, Max Riemett, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff. Master Director Barbet Schroeder brings us this tale of memory and loss. A DJ in a club called Amnesia in Ibiza is mesmerized by a lonely woman who comes to the club every night. He befriends her and as she slowly lets him in, she begins to reveal the past she has been trying to forget – only now she is trying to make peace with it. July 21

 Brigsby Bear

(Sony Classics) Kyle Mooney, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear. A strange and magical children’s television show, The Adventures of Brigsby Bear, has an audience of one – James. When the show ends abruptly, he finds that he cannot accept that his beloved show is gone. Therefore he decides to finish the show himself and maybe define himself in the process. It looks to have a bit of a Michel Gondry influence judging on the trailer. July 28