Lake of Fire
Abortion documentary examines both passionate sides of the issue
By Devin D. O’Leary
Lake of Fire
Directed by Tony Kaye
Filmmaker Tony Kaye (American History X) chose to shoot his new documentary Lake of Fire in stark black and white. This artistic decision highlights the clear-cut feelings of people on either side of the film’s central issue, abortion. For a great many people, this is a black-and-white issue, a case of right and wrong, of moral and immoral, with nothing resembling a middle ground.
Kaye spent more than 15 years assembling the provocatively titled Lake of Fire, an exhaustive portrait of the pro-life/pro-choice movements in America. It is, by and large, an evenhanded, unbiased look at both ends of this passionate argument. There is no editorial voice-over and a bare minimum of subtitles to guide viewers. Kaye doesn’t needle his subjects for answers or justifications, he simply lets them tell their own stories in their own voices. What emerges is an honest, sober-minded collage of an issue that is in the process of tearing our country apart.
In the years since Roe v. Wade was passed, abortion has been a growing topic of interest, particularly for America’s fundamentalist Christians. In fact, it has gone from a major plank in a political platform (supplanting the last bugaboo, equal rights) to the sole guiding issue for thousands of evangelicals, born-again Christians and papal Catholics.
Kaye offers up a host of compelling subjects, some of whom are casual observers of the debate, some of whom are intimately entwined in the issue. Noam Chomsky, in danger of becoming America’s most overused talking head, manages to deliver some levelheaded insight from the casual observer sidelines. Norma McCorvey, once known as Jane Roe and now a major convert to the pro-life camp, is among the more surprising anti-abortion advocates. Clearly, there are lucid supporters on both sides, many of whom make good points. Strident religious beliefs aside, there are solid arguments to be made for and against abortion. To his credit, Kaye lets these points emerge.
Kaye also doesn’t shy away from the physical and psychological realities of abortion. He hangs out in abortion clinics, camera in hand, dispassionately observing the actual process at the center of this debate. He even screens some of the more extreme examples of anti-abortion propaganda. The film is quite graphic (fair warning), but the inclusion of this material seems essential. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool of pro-choice advocates may be shaken by these indelible images. Kudos to Kaye for his honesty.
At 152 minutes, Lake of Fire would seem to be an overly long discussion of the topic at hand. It isn’t. Obviously, this topic is worthy of several decades’ discussion. This isn’t a debate that’s going to be settled in a mere two-and-a-half hours, and Kaye isn’t interested in tying a neat bow around his subject. Instead, he takes the subject in hand and turns it over and over, trying to examine it from every facet. In this, he succeeds quite well. Testimonies range from the clear-eyed and concise (pro-choice Catholic Frances Kissling) to the raving and radical (one splenetic minister claims most abortion doctors are “practicing Satanists” because he’s seen them pull living fetuses from the womb, dangle them by their left foot and toss them on barbecue grills--right in front of his face!). Treading somewhere in-between are ordinary women like Stacey, a 29-year-old thinking about having an abortion. Kaye follows her through every tough, decision-making moment.
Though the film tries to present both sides of the argument in their best light, it’s hard to remain neutral when one side (the so-called “pro-lifers”) spends so much time advocating assassinations and bombings in the name of Jesus. (Operation Life Founder Randall Terry, for example, seems like a very poor supporter of any “life” that exists outside the womb.) Kaye’s camera is there, recording the deeds of murderous anti-abortion zealots like Michael Griffin, Paul Hill and Eric Rudolph.
Even more frightening is Kaye’s uncovering of “Christian Revisionists,” who want to create a Biblical nation where blasphemy, sodomy and apostasy are punishable by death. The only thing standing in their way? Civil rights, religious freedom and that pesky Constitution. Seen in this light, abortion becomes less of a fight over the precious lives of unborn children and more of an easy way to start stripping away Americans’ rights and freedoms.
In the end, Kaye’s visual metaphor is obvious, but no less valid: Abortion isn’t, wasn’t and never will be a black-and-white issue. It’s a hazy gray area of conflicting beliefs, morals, laws, dogmas and medical understandings. Confusing as that may be, perhaps it should remain there.