Two Rice U. students, Stephen Fell and Will Thompson, assigned to make a documentary about a person they don’t know, wind up embedded in the anti-abortion movement with seemingly limitless access to everything from tactical training courses to interviews with key members of the Army of God in “Unborn in the USA.” Those expecting an expose of the pro-life movement in the vein of “Jesus Camp” may be disappointed, since the docu lacks a clearly defined center. Still, “Unborn,” slated to open today at Gotham’s Cinema Village, makes for a real eye-opener.
Fell and Thompson start their docu at the headquarters of Focus on the Family, where studentsfrom various colleges are prepped to deliver the pro-life message for course credit. With charm, patience, videotapes and the latest marketing tools, instructors prepare their charges with precooked arguments to meet every scenario (including a page devoted to pregnancy in case of rape).
Focus on the Family staffers also school their students to assume a helpful, compassionate demeanor rather than a harassing, know-it-all manner, arming the trainees with an inflexible, quietly “logical” approach designed to drive spontaneous, emotional pro-choicers absolutely nuts. Indeed, this proves to be the case when the acolytes are dispatched to a series of campuses to put their sales pitches to work.
The students come equipped with backpacks (to blend in) and giant images of bloody, dismembered fetuses, juxtaposed with photos of the Holocaust and assembled into a huge triangular structure erected in the middle of whichever college is targeted for a three-day anti-abortion blitz.
The photos are deliberately provocative, and the question of their appropriateness, first posed in class (“Would Jesus use graphic images?”), is somehow answered by the popularity of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ,” which has apparently made disturbing images more palatable to the faithful. Helmers Fell and Thompson interpolate several bloody scenes from “The Passion” as ambivalent illustration.
The filmmakers’ embedded perspective carries both advantages and disadvantages. Israeli helmer Avi Mograbi, in his ironically titled “How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon,” notes that privileged access, in and of itself, constitutes a form of seduction. In the case of “Unborn,” that seduction manifests itself positively in the filmmakers’ ability to portray pro-life figures three-dimensionally. But it also leads the helmers to occasionally lose perspective.
Pic includes a generalized exploration of the anti-abortion crusade, rather desultorily incorporating historical footage and covering a broad spectrum of prominent right-to-lifers, from a homicidal rageaholic Army of God priest to the pacifist reverend who offers a reward for his capture.
But docu’s half-hearted attempt to achieve a journalistic overview disguises its true subject — the undeniable propagandistic power of imagery. Pic’s most intense moments focus on visual symbols, as posters of bloody fetuses go on the march against posters of wire hangers. The very success of a pro-life crisis center, sitting right next to a famous abortion clinic, depends on the use of sonogram readouts that render embryos more convincingly baby-like.
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