Debuting helmers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson manage a rare feat in “After Tiller,” making a calm, humanist docu about a hot-button topic: third-trimester abortions and the last four doctors in the U.S. who perform them. Now the top targets of the anti-abortion movement, these two men and two women were former colleagues of Kansas physician George Tiller, who was assassinated as he attended church in May 2009. Well contextualized and sensitively shot with extraordinary access, the pic reflects the personal, moral and ethical struggles of the doctors as well as their patients, and deserves the widest possible audience.
One of the film’s greatest achievements is that it provides a better understanding of why women seek late abortions. Regardless of whether or not one approves of the procedure, which, as the film makes clear, constitutes less than 1% of all terminations that take place in the U.S. each year, one cannot fail to be moved by listening to the desperate mothers who seek an abortion past 20 weeks into a planned pregnancy. Most have just learned their unborn child suffers from fetal abnormalities that would cause the infant to suffer terribly during what would be a short lifespan full of painful medical complications.
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The pregnant women, whose faces are never revealed, are filmed in intimate, artful closeup, their clenched hands clutching tissues and emotion-wracked voices making them intensely sympathetic Everywomen. As many of them say, they never imagined that this could happen to them or that they would have to make a decision that conflicts with deeply held beliefs. The way they invoke God and forgiveness contrasts starkly with the (even-handed) footage of the protestors outside the clinic walls, who condemn in the name of religion without considering the complexities the film delves into.
But at the heart of the film are the four extraordinarily compassionate and articulate doctors, who, in memory of Tiller (about whom they speak warmly) and in the face of threats to themselves and their families, refuse to be bullied into giving up their work, although many of their peers were. Now edging past normal retirement age, they continue to practice, because they know that they are the last recourse for women in extreme circumstances. The film shows them counseling patients, talking to them in the operating room, working with staff and spending time with their families.
Dr. LeRoy Carhart, like Tiller, a military veteran, works with his wife of more than 50 years, who manages his clinic. When the state of Nebraska puts legal limits on late abortions, he starts another clinic in Maryland, one of only nine states where the procedure is legal.
Drily witty Dr. Warren Hern is in his mid-70s, but displays the energy of a man half his age. He has been performing abortions in Boulder, Colo., since the mid-1970s, to the detriment of his personal life.
Although they both live in California, Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley Sella commute in alternate weeks to Albuquerque to work at the Southwestern Women’s Options clinic, whose staff of sympathetic and responsive counselors and nurses is as impressive as the doctors.
The pic’s attractive production package will look fine in broadcast. Intimate lensing attests to the level of trust the filmmakers established with their subjects. Archival news footage is well chosen.