SXSW Film Review: ‘Vessel’

Shot through and through with activist zeal, this vivid profile of an abortion-rights group might have benefited from a more distanced approach.

Rebecca Gomperts, Kinga Jelinska, Cecilia Costa, Gunilla Kleiverda, Myra Ter Meulen, Juul Brockling, Lizet Kraal.

Winner of the SXSW Film Festival’s audience award for documentary, as well as a special jury citation for “political courage,” Diana Whitten’s “Vessel” offers a vivid profile of the abortion-rights group Women on Waves, as well as its irrepressible, fiery founder, Rebecca Gomperts. The film is an intriguing story passionately told, shot through and through with activist zeal, although a greater deal of distance might have allowed it to make a stronger case. “Vessel” ought to be a conversation-starter at festivals down the line, with a possible theatrical release on the horizon.

Founded in 1999 in the Netherlands, Women on Waves was started as a bold insurrectionist effort to provide abortion pills to women where the procedure is illegal, by picking them up on land and floating out into international waters. Theirs was a controversial mission, to say the least, and while it’s unclear from the docu just how many procedures were actually performed in this manner, the attention the group received allowed it to stage a number of landlocked demonstrations and assistance programs.

Much of that attention can be credited to Gomperts’ highly camera-friendly volubility. If she comes across as a sort of mix of doctor, art student and Greenpeace volunteer, that’s because she is, and she seems just as comfortable facing down political opponents on talkshows or leaping from boat to shore in front of unruly crowds in Valencia as she does performing medical consultations.

After a series of contentious voyages, the mission started to evolve: Instead of simply administering the pills themselves to a handful of women at sea, the org began to use its notoriety to launch hotlines and Web resources to help women find and use the drug misoprostol to induce abortion. This provides the film with an interesting internal conflict: Scenes of the ship facing down a Portuguese naval blockade or of Gomperts wading through protesters in Morocco make for great cinema, but it’s in the far less glamorous sequences of training sessions in Tanzanian villages that the org seems to be doing its real work. For her part, Gomperts speaks eloquently of the boat’s symbolic value, as well as the ways fear of backlash can prevent activists from taking the steps needed to spark real change.

Obviously, “Vessel” hardly has the time to re-litigate Roe v. Wade, and despite providing some sobering statistics, the film likely won’t do much to bring pro-lifers over to the other camp. (Though onscreen transcriptions of calls and emails the org has received from desperate girls seeking help are heartbreaking.) Which is fine; however, the docu could still stand to apply a more objective treatment to some of the group’s activities.

For example, Gomperts’ maiden voyage to Ireland was scuttled upon arrival by Dutch certification snafus. And her second, in which she sailed to Poland, seems to have been complicated when customs officials found that their nautical clinic had fewer pills than were listed on the manifest. (Exactly what happened here is never made totally clear.) Even if these are all just bureaucratic details in the end, when an org seeks to intentionally subvert the laws of sovereign countries to conduct controversial medical services on the open ocean, one would hope they’d go to greater lengths to avoid even the appearance of recklessness, and that Whitten would call them on it a bit more.

Using her own camera as well as footage filmed by previous aspiring documentarians who boarded Gomperts’ vessel, Whitten crafts an arresting firsthand portrait, and her up-close look at a strategy session with young activists in Ecuador gives a particularly eye-opening view of grassroots advocacy in action. Animated sequences fill in some of the medical and statistical details, while Whitten’s supplementary interviews with the likes of Polish activist Kinga Jelinska — who ominously notes that the group has received increasing numbers of inquiries from the United States in recent years — provide valuable context.

Popular on Variety

SXSW Film Review: 'Vessel'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 9, 2014. Running time: 88 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Sovereignty Prods. presentation in association with Fork Films, Impact Partners, Chicken and Egg Pictures. Produced by Diana Whitten, Mitchell Block. Executive producers, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Abigail Disney.

Crew: Directed by Diana Whitten. Camera (color), Whitten; editor, Simeon Hunter; music, T. Griffin, Heather McIntosh; animation, Emily Hubley, Emilie Hsin Pei Liu.

With: Rebecca Gomperts, Kinga Jelinska, Cecilia Costa, Gunilla Kleiverda, Myra Ter Meulen, Juul Brockling, Lizet Kraal.

More Film

  • Suro

    Lastor, ‘The Endless Trench’s’ Irusoin, Malmo Team for Mikel Gurrea’s ‘Suro’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN – Barcelona-based Lastor Media and Malmo Pictures have teamed with San Sebastian’s Irusoin to produce “Suro” (The Cork), the feature debut of Mikel Gurrea and a product of San Sebastian’s Ikusmira Berriak program. The film stars Laia Costa, who broke through with Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” and also serves as executive producer, and Pol López [...]

  • Ane

    Madrid’s ECAM Incubator Develops Terrorism Drama 'Ane'

    SAN SEBASTIAN — For the second year in a row, the ECAM Madrid Film School has paired a number of up-and-coming filmmakers with various industry veterans for an Incubator program part of the school broader development arm called The Screen. For its initial edition in 2018, this Incubator selected five feature projects, putting the selected [...]

  • Roma Cinematography

    'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Roma' Win LMGI Awards for Motion Pictures

    Two major 2018 releases – actioner “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and critics’ darling “Roma” – were honored for film location work by the Location Managers Guild International at a ceremony this evening at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The 6th Annual LMGI Awards also recognized “Chernobyl” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content