Tuesday, 13 May 2008
LAKE OF FIRE (Tony Kaye, 2006)
After months of trying, I was finally able to track down, through bittorrent, Tony Kaye's abortion documentary Lake of Fire. The film has received praise as a relatively un-biased take on the issue, neither pro-life or pro-choice. I would agree to a certain extent. The film is not un-biased, as there is a clear point of view, but its perspective is not really pro-life or pro-choice. Rather, it is anti-pro-life.
During debates on pornography, there evolved a position that became known as anti-anti-porn. This described people who did not necessary support pornography but nevertheless disagreed with the anti-porn position, especially around the idea of censorship. I think Kaye takes a similar position regarding abortion. The film begins with a discussion by intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz, who describe the difficulty and complexity of the issue. Kaye also introduces Dershowitz's friend Nat Hentoff, an liberal atheist who is nevertheless pro-life. However, Hentoff's more intellectually legitimate position is not explored. Instead, Kaye focuses on the extreme religious right who support the shooting of abortion doctors and the bombing of abortion clinics. The only time Hentoff is shown again is when he argues that the pro-life position needs to be more consistent: not only anti-abortion, but anti-capital punishment, anti-war, etc. This is followed by the most persuasive argument of the film, put forth by Chomsky:
"It is very well established that as women have more opportunities, more education, as better medical care is available, as more family planning is available, fertility rates go down, abortion goes down, children are better cared for, women are healthier. Those things are known. Those are all things that are easily under social control and should not be controversial. I don't think there should be anything controversial about making sure that women have access to decent obstetric care. That alone would save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. If you want to do things to help women, there are very easy ways to do it. And it's not just true of women but also children. Unicef also reports that, if my memory is correct, 15 million children die every year from mostly easily treatable diseases, things like a lack of drinkable water, or dehydration, or diarrhea, things that can be very easily treated, and treatable for pennies a day from the rich countries. So, if you're serious about saving lives, about saving children's lives, there are easy ways to do it. On the other hand, if you look at the same people who are most militant about saving the fetus, are they calling for an increase in foreign aid? Are they concerned that the United States has the most miserable and miserly foreign aid program of any developed country, by quite a large margin? The country has plenty of wealth, the means are easily there, (but) the social policy is being designed to enrich the wealthy even further and let the poor suffer, let the children starve, let the mothers die, and so on. That's an overwhelming problem. People who are willing to address those problems we can at least take seriously when they talk about values. You can listen to what they say about other things, like abortion, which is a hard question. But I don't think we should be interested in discussing it with people whose values are such that they don't care about the massive problem of killing and harming women and children that they could easily deal with and are doing nothing about. In fact, making it worse, not doing nothing about it, but making it worse."
I would describe the film as anti-pro-life because it does not deal with people on the pro-life side who we can take seriously. People like Hentoff are not the focus, but rather easily dismissed zealots or political opportunists like Pat Buchanan (at the end of Chomsky's speech, Kaye cuts to a Buchanan speech at the American Life League, a political "shock" cut if there ever was one). This is not necessarily a negative, since the vast majority of pro-lifers cannot be taken seriously, and Kaye effectively critiques this position. However, he could also have interrogated the pro-choice position as well. Kaye does hint at this, since some of the pro-choice positions are not well argued (the female rock band, for example), but ultimately does not make this a significant part of his film (see Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth (1996) for a more neutral critique of both sides of the debate).
Why, then, would I not describe the film as pro-choice? Simply, it is the graphic imagery Kaye shows of an abortion early in the film which resonates in the mind. This is not the shock imagery used for pro-lifers, which is also shown but doesn't have the same impact. Rather, it is a matter-of-fact procedure shown of an abortion performed after 20 weeks in which we see the hand of the fetus in a washing bin. The disturbance of this image is such that it can potentially overwhelm any other facts and cause hesitancy in any pro-choice position. This is deliberate on Kaye's part. Most abortions take place before anything resembling a actual human has been formed. What Kaye wants to leave viewers with are the questions of when this takes place and what consequences this decision has on what the law on abortion should be (if any).
Although Lake of Fire is over 150 minutes long, it seems to need a sequel in which Kaye would tackle the actual difficulty of the abortion issue without concentrating on individuals who do not deserve the attention they receive. Unfortunately, as long as terrorist groups on the pro-life side continue to receive support, they have to be dealt with, and Kaye does this well.