A personal, self-financed project by British helmer Tony Kaye, "Lake of Fire" reps an extraordinary docu achievement. Handsomely filmed on silvery 35mm and high-definition by Kaye himself, the shrewdly edited pic balances a full spectrum of views from all sides of the abortion debate without obviously taking a position itself.

A personal, self-financed project by British helmer Tony Kaye, “Lake of Fire” reps an extraordinary docu achievement. Handsomely filmed on silvery 35mm and high-definition by Kaye himself, the shrewdly edited pic balances a full spectrum of views from all sides of the abortion debate without obviously taking a position itself. Blending ethical philosophy, human drama and disturbing images of dismembered fetuses, pic compels auds to reassess their own feelings about this contentious issue. “Fire” generated hot buyer interest in Toronto, but the cut caught may not be final, per helmer, and the material may next emerge as part of a longer TV series.

Kaye first made a splash in advertising by helming expensive, eye-catching commercials in Blighty during the ’80s and ’90s for big-name clients like Nike, Volkswagen, Dunlop tires and others. Famously, he fell out with producing studio New Line and star Edward Norton over his stylized drama “American History X,” allegedly because Kaye refused to finish editing the pic.

The long gestation period — 17 years according to the helmer — for “Lake of Fire,” and rumors that this 152-minute edit may only be a work in progress suggests Kaye may still be wrestling with completion anxieties.

However, the version caught at Toronto fest hardly needs much improving. Wisely eschewing the use of a voiceover to create a single editorial voice, and holding subtitles to a minimum, revealing just names and facts, pic builds up a remarkable collage of footage, mixing talking heads with more dynamic scenes of protests, court trials and surgical procedures.

Interviewees speaking directly to camera range from linguist and cultural critic Noam Chomsky and Catholic campaigner Frances Kissling (both adamantly pro-choice), to lawyer Alan Dershowitz (more mixed on the issue), to eminent jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who although he professes to be an atheist still firmly believes a fetus has just as much right to life as any infant.

More typical, religiously informed pro-lifers include homophobic fundamentalist Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, seen being heckled by transvestites at a Washington, D.C., rally, and various other Florida-based anti-abortion zealots, some of whom (Michael Griffin and Paul Hill) ended up murdering doctors who performed abortions. Footage of Griffin and Hill’s trials is seen, while sociologist Dallas Blanchard acts as a commentator and guide through their case histories.

Kaye also includes footage of a clearly deranged Hill before he committed his crime declaiming that people who say “God damn it” will be condemned to eternal suffering in hell.

Editing moves effortlessly between political and ethical speechifying and more personal stories. Some are famous, like Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, the woman pseudonymously named in the key 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the U.S. and who is now a passionate pro-lifer.

In contrast, a 29-year-old woman named Stacey is observed going through the whole process of having a termination, from the counseling to the procedure itself. Afterward, she’s shaken but unrepentant about having made the right decision for her.

Pro-choice auds will hear little from the rightists seen here that will change their minds. However, even the most committed supporter of a woman’s right to choose is likely to feel shaken by footage of the mangled corpse of 4-month-old fetus, turned into a jumble of limbs and crushed skull fragments in a surgeon’s tray.

Pic’s use of monochrome stock, draining the red out of the imagery, will be most welcome for the faint of heart, although the helmer has said the decision to film the pic without color sprang from a desire to show how this so-called “black and white” issue is really all about shades of grey.

Use of music — some of it written for the pic by Anne Dudley, some of it from Henry Gorecki’s plangent but overused Third Symphony — occasionally goes into overkill mode. Otherwise, tech credits are immaculate.

Lake of Fire

Production

An Above the Sea production. (International sales: Anonymous Content, Culver City.) Produced by Tony Kaye. Executive producers, Tony Kaye, Yan Lin Kaye. Co-executive producers, Steve Golin, David Kanter, Lenny Bekerman. Directed by Tony Kaye.

Crew

Camera (B&W, 35mm, HDCAM), Kaye; editor, Peter Goddard; music, Anne Dudley; sound, Goddard. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 15, 2006. Running time: 152 MIN.

With

Alan Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky, Nat Hentoff, Dallas Blanchard, Norma McCorvey, Peter Singer, Randall Terry, Frederick Clarkson, Bill Baird, Frances Kissling, Michael Griffin, Paul Hill.

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