Delving into the history of a photograph made famous by abortion-rights activists, Jane Gillooly’s “Leona’s Sister Gerri” provides a powerful reminder of the suffering women endured when abortions were illegal and sometimes fatal. Political but non-argumentative, affecting docu should play well at fests and appropriate specialized sites.
Pic opens with middle-aged Leona Gordon recalling seeing a photo of a dead, naked victim of an illegal abortion accompanying a1973 article in Ms. magazine. “That’s my sister,” she said to herself in horror at the photo and its anonymous use. Gillooly then explores the picture and its subject, humanizing what would become an icon for the movement championing abortion rights.
As Leona and others explain, Gerri Santoro grew up in a large farm family in the small-town Connecticut of the 1950s. A spirited, attractive girl, she vowed to beat her best high school friend to the altar, and married Sebastian (Sam) Santoro only a few weeks after meeting him. The couple had two daughters, but the marriage was not a happy one. He beat her frequently, friends say, and insisted that the family move to California to escape the sinus problems he claimed provoked his violent outbursts.
The move did nothing to lessen his attacks on Gerri, though, and she abruptly took the two girls and returned to Connecticut. There, she was wooed and impregnated by a co-worker, Clyde Dixon, described by acquaintances as “a smooth talker.” Fearing the reaction of Sam, who was due to return shortly, she submitted to Clyde’s attempt to perform an abortion in a motel room. The bungled operation left her dead at age 28. The year was 1964, before abortions were legalized.
Shooting on Hi-8 and Beta (transferred to 16mm) and using archival footage as well as family photographs, Gillooly chronicles Gerri’s life with a sure feel for the small details that make such an unfortunately common story moving and tragic.
Interview subjects include Gerri’s grown daughters, Joannie Griffin and Judy Blare, who express some ambivalence both about abortion and the way the horrific photo of their mother was used without the family’s permission. But the final word goes to Leona, who, while registering her own initial conflicts about the photo, has decided it was “a good thing” that it became an emblematic warning against the cruel fate that befell her younger sister.