Sundance Film Review: ‘Trapped’

Dawn Porter's advocacy doc lays out a forceful argument that TRAP laws pose burdens to clinics, doctors and patients.

Trapped Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

In “Trapped,” lawyer-turned-documentarian Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army”) chronicles the lives of medical professionals who work at clinics subject to so-called TRAP laws. The acronym stands for “targeted regulations of abortion providers,” statutes that opponents say limit access to abortion in the guise of promoting safe health practices. Not as powerful as “After Tiller” or as visually distinguished as “Lake of Fire,” Porter’s advocacy doc settles for a straightforward, somewhat standard presentation, laying out a forceful argument that these laws, though designed to sound innocuous, pose significant burdens to clinics, doctors and patients. The movie is scheduled to open on March 4, two days after the Supreme Court hears a major case on Texas’s current abortion regulations. A ruling is expected in June; the Sundance cut could well require an update by the time the film airs on Independent Lens that month.

Like “After Tiller,” which focused on doctors who perform late-term abortions, “Trapped” is not a sweeping look at the abortion debate but a closely observed portrait of a particular segment of it. Porter zeros in on clinics in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas that — particularly since 2010, according to the movie’s timeline — have faced a proliferation of regulations that have had the effect of restricting their operations. In many cases, we’re told, these laws have pushed clinics to shut down. We watch as a Tuscaloosa, Ala., clinic facing closure directs callers to Huntsville and Montgomery. Marva Sadler, director of clinical services for Whole Woman’s Health in Texas, runs through the costs of buying what appear to be unnecessary medications and replacing them when they expire.

Willie Parker, an obstetrician-gynecologist who used to travel from Chicago to states where doctors who perform abortions are difficult to find (and who eventually relocated to the South), describes the catch-22 that often comes with requiring that physicians have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Because the privileges often require a certain number of admissions, and abortion is regarded as a relatively safe procedure, he explains, he wouldn’t be able to admit enough patients to keep the privileges.

At times, the daily operations seem to verge on the absurd. (“I’m required to tell you that there’s a risk of breast cancer,” Parker tells a patient at the sole abortion clinic that remains in Mississippi. “There is no scientific evidence to support that.”) June Ayers, owner and director of Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, makes creative use of a sprinkler system to ward off protesters. Toward the film’s end, staffers at a San Antonio clinic wait out the clock on June 29, 2015, wondering whether the Supreme Court will grant a stay that will keep their office open and their jobs in place.

Unapologetically one-sided, “Trapped” is not a movie that is going to change anybody’s mind about abortion. Rather, the emphasis is on illustrating how abstract political debates lead to tangible consequences in the lives of both patients and healthcare professionals. Some patients are shown; at least one is obscured. At one point, we’re told, a clinic has been forced to turn away a 13-year-old rape victim who made a four-hour trip to be there.

Powerful material doesn’t automatically yield a timeless or artistic documentary, and for better or worse, “Trapped” is an op-ed aimed squarely at the present moment in an enduring national conversation. It could stand to take a longer view and check in on its subjects a year from now. Pic’s tech credits are purely functional.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Trapped’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary — competing). Running time: <strong>81 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: A Ro*Co Films, Abramorama and Independent Lens presentation of a Trilogy Films production with Big Mouth Prods. and Cedar Creek Prods. in association with Chicken & Egg Pictures. (International sales: Ro*Co Films Intl., Sausalito, Calif.) Produced by Dawn Porter, Marilyn Ness. Executive producers, Cindy Meehl, Lois Vossen, Sally Jo Fifer. Co-producer, Summer Damon. Co-executive producers, Diane L. Max, Audrey Rosenberg.
  • Crew: Directed by Dawn Porter. Screenplay, Porter, Sari Gilman. Camera (color, HD), Nadia Hallgren, Chris Hilleke; editor, Gilman; music, Paul Brill, Elizabeth Ziman; sound, Chris Burns, Jacob "Cubby" Falls, Judy Karp, Francisco Latorre, David Schumacher, Bob Silverthorne, Tyrell Williams; re-recording mixer, Pete Horner; line producer, Jennifer Partin; associate producers, Amanda Goscinski, Dana Kalmey.
  • With: Willie Parker, Amy Hagstrom Miller, Marva Sadler, Nancy Northup, June Ayers, Dalton Johnson, Gloria Gray.