Filmmaker Dawn Porter has shown a willingness to probe uncomfortable truths and untold stories in the past. LA Times critic Robert Lloyd called her acclaimed Independent Lens film Spies of Mississippi “eye-opening” for its look at the ways civil rights activists were spied on by the government in the ’50s and ’60s. For her new film, TRAPPED, Porter returns to the South for a story that will open eyes even more, and at an especially high-stakes moment. The documentary, mostly focused on the states of Alabama and Texas, captures the front lines of the controversial battle currently being waged over so-called TRAP laws — Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers — which reproductive rights advocates believe are designed to restrict access to abortion.
The film is “aimed squarely at an enduring national conversation,” wrote Ben Kenigsberg in Variety. “Dawn Porter’s sobering, gracefully constructed documentary about the tide of laws restricting abortion that have swept the country, couldn’t arrive at a more timely moment,” adds Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post.
The filmmaker took some time to talk to us about making TRAPPED, whether she was worried about safety, and to give her opinion on how it can be used to spark a national conversation on the eve of the Supreme Court’s potentially landmark decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
Why did you make TRAPPED? Why did you want to make a film about such a controversial topic?
Once I met people like June Ayers, like Dr. Parker, I couldn’t step away from this story. I feel like it’s actually one of the most important civil rights conversations that we should be having. And I hope that everyone who is sitting on the sidelines actually exercises their political opinion.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making TRAPPED?
Everything was a challenge. Convincing many people to appear on camera was hard — it is dangerous to be an abortion provider, and providers are very careful, as they should be. Following active litigation is hard — lawyers don’t always like pesky filmmakers! And then there were many moving parts to the story, so figuring out the narrative thread to a story that is unfolding around you is challenging.
And were you and your producers actually worried about your own safety while making the film, or even now while it’s being distributed?
To some extent, yes. We would have been naive not to think that was a possibility during the process of making and distributing this film. It is no secret that abortion is a contentious issue in the United States, and that contention can manifest itself in violent ways. My biggest concern was not for myself and my crew, but for the clinicians, staff, doctors, and others with whom I would be in contact while making the film. People have been killed doing this work. I never wanted the film to bring undue risk to those who were working to help women, or the women seeking their services. The biggest, eye-opening moment for me was when I tweeted one of my usual updates about where I was filming in Texas and some fervent anti-choice bloggers pounced, and within minutes had published something about my location and the staff I was with that day. It made me realize how quickly and intensely my actions could impact those around me while making this film.
How did you gain the trust of the main characters?
When you make verite documentaries, it’s important to create intimacy and make people feel comfortable with you and your crew. You have to inspire trust in people. Not only do I try to make people feel comfortable by being genuinely interested in their stories, I also look for crew that do the same. A bad attitude can kill a shot and destroy the intimacy. My DPs [directors of photography], Chris Hilleke and Nadia Halgren, are both calm and warm people and they help inspire trust. I also shot with Derek Weisenhahn and Keith Walker, and Kirsten Johnson [The Invisible War; 1971; CitizenFour] came and did a crucial shoot for us. Each brings something unique, and really understands how to create intimacy during interviews. It’s also important to be in constant contact with your subjects – you really get to know each other that way.
And were there people on the other side of this debate that you approached to be in the film?
I approached lawmakers who introduced the legislation but was unable to secure on-camera interviews in time to add to the film, so we used archival [footage]. We also interviewed protestors, but in the end this is not a film about the morality of a woman’s decision to have an abortion. It is a film about politics and power. I think both sides are accurately represented and represented well. The states making these laws feel it is their right. That decision will be determined by the Supreme Court. But whatever their views, the impact on the women, the clinic owners, and the doctors is also real and the film is an attempt to show that.
Given laws about women’s health and abortion are such a contentious topic in this country, and have been for decades, do you see any hope for bridging that divide?
If a family that is politically divided over this issue watches the film, what would you like them to take away from it as far as discussion points?
In a number of ways, TRAPPED is a story of how rights that are not advocated for may disappear in practice. No liberty is guaranteed if the access to that liberty can be legislated away. The story of the chaos surrounding TRAP laws is not that far afield from other threats to rights of certain individuals and groups in our society; voter ID laws, or ordinances that target members of the LGBT community have a lot in common with them, in fact. A right is only as good as one’s ability to exercise it, so the Roe v. Wade ruling doesn’t matter much if you’re in Texas and 500 miles from the nearest abortion clinic because that is the closest one that could comply with the TRAP laws. These types of laws should matter because eroding the rights of certain groups often has a spillover effect and ends up having more far-reaching consequences than anticipated.
Obviously the big thing we are all waiting for (as of this writing) is the Supreme Court decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Are there any other updates you can give us on the people depicted in this film — or on their clinics?
There is an ongoing battle over some new regulatory controls on abortion procedures and clinic locations in Alabama. This absolutely impacts some of those in the film. The ACLU has filed a challenge to legislation that attempts to outlaw a common procedure for abortion in the second trimester and another piece of legislation that would require abortion clinics to be located at least 2,000 feet from public schools where K-8 children attend. This, by the way, is the same sort of law that is used to regulate the proximity of sex offenders to schools. These measures threaten the closure of at least two clinics in the state.
Are these targeted laws mostly still focused in the Southern US where the film is set, or is there a nationwide pattern at this point?
This is absolutely a national issue. 44 states and Washington D.C. all impose restrictions specific to abortion providers that are not applied to other medical or healthcare professionals [USA Today; stats via Guttmacher Institute], so this is not a regionally-specific issue, nor is it confined to the South. However, these laws are disproportionately concentrated in the South. There is a so-called “abortion desert” from Florida to New Mexico where women have little to no access to abortion services. If the Supreme Court sides with Texas in its ruling later this month, similar laws in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Kansas are likely to have a number of clinics close as well because of similar legislation in those states.
What surprised you the most while making TRAPPED?
I was most amazed by the tenacity of the clinic owners and staff members. These are dedicated, compassionate people who have navigated the bureaucratic legal maze of laws that are often inconsistent with modern medical knowledge and practice because they believe so strongly in helping women and families in need. Any other person would’ve given up long ago in the face of what some of these professionals have endured, but they keep fighting because of what they believe in. It is humbling to see such a commitment to such difficult work.
One interesting thing I noticed in the anti-choice movement is an increasing effort for anti-choice activists to inject race and to try and intimidate. There was a protester who yells “Black lives matter!” They’re holding signs of black babies. It intimidates not only the patients, but also providers who are not minority providers, who are accused of committing black genocide. You know, so the effort to inject race into the conversation around abortion is in increasing frequency.
What are some of your favorite films?
I love The Overnighters [a 2014 film about the North Dakota oil boom] and Amy, the documentary about Amy Winehouse. Those films tell you about something you may think you know about, but actually don’t at all. Amy, for example, looks at what role the public had in her death. We’re in such a great time for documentaries. There is a lot of attention being paid to storytelling and drama.
What projects/films are you working on or hoping to work on next?
I’m working two projects involving archive – one is a history of the evaluation of criminal justice laws and the other is a very important and fascinating personal history of a seminal American political figure. I’m also doing a biographical piece on a young actor who is searching for his father. He’s an incredible guy and I’m really excited about working with him.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Don’t be afraid to get paid for your work as a filmmaker. I see a lot of filmmakers doing multiple jobs with little or no pay to get their movies made. We all do that for these labors of love, but it’s not a realistic or long-term business model. To expect passionate, dedicated, and talented filmmakers to work for nothing is an unfair and unhelpful assumption. First-time filmmakers should remember that. It’s also helpful for people to know that even the most successful documentary filmmakers still struggle. There are very few people I know, if any, who just go off and make their film in a cave in the dark and go on to have a successful exhibition without significant help. Reach out to other filmmakers for advice, we’re a really collaborative community.