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On Lake of Fire

I should give fair warning that give some of the images described from the film are mind-bendingly horrific. According to one of the previews, this documentary about the “abortion war” (as it is referred to several times in the film) was in the making for 18 years. Such a long gestation period certainly explains the numerous references to the Clinton administration and the series of murders in the 1990s of abortion providers. Tony Kaye, the director first achieved distinction and noteriety with American History X, a movie about a skinhead Nazi played by Edward Norton. In Lake of Fire he’s certainly shown his penchant for violent material.

The movie is entirely black and white, which certainly underscores the divisiveness shown on the screen. The opening frame is a long-distance shot of a billboard exhorting passers-by to “Enjoy Life”, which baffled me. Obviously, there’s a lot of suffering played out on the screen, and, it needs to be said, the exact meaning of an enjoyable life is going to mean something different the people portrayed there. Some, of course, will never have that option. So the billboard might be ironic, it might be an honest imprecation, it might be a claim achieved, or it just might be impossible, depending on who you are. The semiotics involved here are multivalent at best, but I think better described as confused.

Lake of Fire is often described as well-balanced, but I would offer a few caveats. Not that Kaye hasn’t done his best to give every one their say, but does giving every one their say mean that the issue itself is so utterly intractable? I wonder. It’s true that people on all sides of the issue seem to be given an equal chance to sound like complete idiots. Which is not to say that every one does. Nat Hentoff, self-described “Jewish atheist civil-libertarian pro-lifer,” explains the pro-life position about as simply and rationally as I’ve ever seen it explained, and only after doing so does he bring up Bernadin’s argument for the seamless garment.

On the other hand, we get to hear Noam Chomsky, who says, “Everyone is opposed to infanticide. Everyone agrees that women are allowed to wash their hands, although they lose cells that some future technology might be able to develop children from those cells. Somewhere between, say, washing your hands and killing your three-year-old, there are decisions to be made.”

A skin cell is not a child. A three year old is not an infant. This is how a moral vacuum is made.

We see Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice. There’s a great, long sequence on Norma McCorvey, the woman who was “Roe” and went on to become an active member of Operation Rescue and later a Roman Catholic. Alan Dershowitz is there, of course. And Frederick Clarkson. And Bill Baird. Paul Hall, who did everything he could to encourage the murder of abortion providers, is featured extensively. Randall Terry shows up over and over and over again.

And then there are the images. Fetal heads on spikes. A dead woman on all fours, the victim of a self-administered abortion. Nothing if not level; a Lake of Fire indeed.

For me, all this paled in comparison to the final sequence, in which we follow a young woman who goes to a clinic for her fourth (fifth? – I’ve forgotten) abortion. She is interviewed both by filmmaker Kaye (or she speaks to the camera) and the intake nurse at the clinic. The nurse is compassion personified; the camera is anything but. We hear a good deal of her story, and it’s frankly awful. It’s so sad that I actually found myself relieved that no one bothered to ask why she hadn’t availed herself of the many, many forms of birth control available everywhere.

We can watch, if we dare, the beginning, middle, and end of the abortion.

She’s interviewed after the abortion: She seems a little drowsy, and there is a slight loss of affect in her voice. She knows she’s made the right decision. She has a new apartment, and she’s going to get on with life; in that dazed state she says, “It’s just time to …”, and then collapses in tears.

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