Clinical, but emotional too

Times Staff Writer

DIRECTOR Tony Kaye says he was forever changed witnessing the second-trimester abortion. Audiences who see Kaye’s new documentary “Lake of Fire” may very well share the British filmmaker’s reaction.

Nearly two decades in the works, “Lake of Fire” is Kaye’s epic look at one of the most personal -- and sometimes violently contentious -- issues of the day: reproductive rights. But rather than fill his 2 1/2 -hour film with nothing but activists, academics and politicians, Kaye goes into the American clinics where the divisive procedures are performed.

No matter where people stand on the issue, the abortion Kaye presents just 20 minutes into the film will certainly become indelible to many: Concerned that he leave no fragments of an aborted fetus in his patient’s uterus, a doctor reassembles the body parts -- tiny feet, arms, a head with a clearly discernible face -- into a nearly intact whole. And the camera never blinks.


What sounds like antiabortion agitprop is, in the context of Kaye’s film, something very different. “Lake of Fire” is Kaye’s attempt to challenge point-blank the lines of reasoning both for and against abortion rights.

It is “a difficult film,” the 55-year-old director says, “a brutally exhausting thing to watch.” But as he sees it, “Lake of Fire” had to be that tough: If he didn’t show those minuscule body parts, he also couldn’t show the photograph of a woman who killed herself trying to end a pregnancy with a coat hanger.

Documentary film is in the midst of an artistic and box-office renaissance. But Kaye isn’t like most documentary directors; his film has no obvious agenda and he’s not using it to make a political statement. ThinkFilm, which acquired Kaye’s film after it premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is releasing “Lake of Fire” very slowly, premiering it in New York last week and in Los Angeles on Friday.

“I went into the project knowing full well that I wanted to make a piece about abortion that was not propagandist in any way,” says Kaye, a prominent commercial and music video director whose last feature film was 1998’s troubled drama “American History X,” on which he famously clashed with New Line Cinema, the Directors Guild of America and star Edward Norton. “I needed, in a journalistic sense, to enthusiastically explore all of the arguments.”

That exploration, which Kaye personally financed at a cost of almost $7 million, ultimately consumed 16 years. And Kaye says he still isn’t done. “To be honest, I’m still not finished. But I had to get on with other things.”

The title is drawn from antiabortion activist John Burt’s description of the hell awaiting the people he believes are on the wrong side of the issue. “It must be like lava coming out of a volcano,” Burt says, “except there’s people in it, and they’re burning and burning and burning.”

Although Kaye interviews more dispassionate speakers -- including journalist Nat Hentoff arguing against abortion and linguist Noam Chomsky supporting a woman’s right to choose -- he clearly is drawn to people on the fringes of the debate, chiefly religious activists who feel they are called by God to demonize and even kill abortion providers.

Mark Urman, the head of U.S. theatrical for ThinkFilm, says the inclusion of the fringe voices serves a complementary storytelling purpose. “The film is not nearly as much about the issue of abortion as it is about the way our society deals with issues,” Urman says. “The film in a very symmetrical way deals with the extremes on both ends of the spectrum.”

Because Kaye filmed for so many years, some of “Lake of Fire’s” most dramatic developments unfolded as the documentary was being assembled. For example, activist Paul Hill is shown protesting outside a Florida clinic, opining that even a foul-mouthed blasphemer should be executed “because that’s what the Bible teaches.” Soon thereafter, we meet Dr. John Bayard Britton, an abortion doctor at the Pensacola Ladies Center who wears a homemade bulletproof vest. “If I don’t do it,” he says of providing abortions, “it probably won’t get done. So I do it.”

But just a few minutes later in the film, a picture of Britton’s body fills the screen; he was shot to death by Hill, a former Presbyterian minister. (Hill was subsequently executed for the 1994 murder.)

“It really does track like a narrative, a fictional piece,” Kaye says from New York, having recently completed filming the crime drama “Black Water Transit” in New Orleans. “I shot the killer, I shot one of the people he killed, I filmed at the place where the killings took place. . . . I still look at this stuff, and it’s amazing how it played out.”

Procedures detailed

Little in the black-and-white “Lake of Fire,” though, is as compelling as the two abortion procedures Kaye records. The first, the second-trimester procedure, left Kaye “a different person when I came out of that room. . . . But it had to be in there. When I decided to make this film, and I started making it, I never dreamed in a million years I’d ever be shooting stuff like that. I’d never dreamt I would get so close up to anything. I just didn’t know what the journey would yield.”

Yet Kaye knew he wanted to find a patient and a clinic that trusted him and his crew enough to let them spend time with her as she is being counseled and then has an abortion. (The identity of the film’s first abortion patient isn’t revealed.) It took five years of searching, but when Kaye met Stacy, who volunteered to let Kaye follow her as she undergoes the film’s second abortion procedure, he realized he had found the film’s final act.

Physically abused by a former boyfriend, poor and previously treated for depression, Stacy doesn’t consider herself ready for motherhood. “It’s just not a good time in my life,” she tells a counselor at the clinic before she climbs onto the operating table.

Since Stacy’s quick dilation and curetage is conducted in her first trimester, the physical evidence of its aftermath is not as manifest as its emotional toll. Soon after the abortion, Stacy collapses in tears. “I just need to go home and get on with my life,” she says quietly. “I knew I made the right choice, but it’s not easy.”

Kaye won’t say how making the movie altered his thinking about abortion. But it’s clear he respects both sides in the debate.

“It is one of the very rare arguments in life, I think, where everyone is right,” he says. “It’s kind of like playing chess. The person who plays better in a game of chess will win. But with the argument of abortion, you can justify all the arguments as right.”