(No longer in theaters)
Tony Kaye’s grueling two-and-a-half-hour documentary Lake of Fire opens with anti-abortion activist and former Ku Klux Klan member John Burt explaining that the lake in question is the place where people who’ve had abortions (and abortionists and, for that matter, those of us who haven’t been saved) will writhe and burn for eternity. He is, of course, unhinged, and fueled by hatred rather than love of innocent souls. But hate is a great motivator, and Burt has been a big influence on people like Michael Griffin and Paul Hill, who added two doctors to that lake’s population.
Kaye has said he wants Lake of Fire to be the film on the issue of abortion—the one that both camps will watch and say, “Okay, that’s fair,” even if they still leave wanting to strangle the people on the other side. Most of the interviews were done in the nineties, before the director, a voluble Englishman, made the skinhead drama American History X (and dynamited his Hollywood career by loudly denouncing the studio and the star, Edward Norton, for recutting the film). But the dialogue hasn’t progressed much; the principal difference is that today, the Supreme Court is a lot closer to overturning Roe v. Wade. That makes this sprawling, scary, nearly unbearable film more important than ever.
Shot in stark black-and-white, Lake of Fire features talking heads from all over the spectrum, from Noam Chomsky to Randall Terry, from the former Jane Roe (Norma McCorvey), now an anti-abortion activist, to Dr. David Gunn, seen in footage from nine months before he was murdered. But at least half the film is in the present tense: demonstrations and counterdemonstrations in which the participants’ fury burns through the screen. And in the final and most notorious sequence, Kaye shows an abortion from beginning (the woman leaving for the clinic) to end (her thoughts when it’s over, in the waiting room), with everything in between. From my perspective, filming the horrific procedure tips the movie to the anti-abortion side—even though the clinic staff is exquisitely sensitive and the woman, a 28-year-old who looks 48 and had her jaw broken by the child’s father, who subsequently died in a motorcycle accident, is in no position financially or emotionally to raise a child. The sad truth is that the anti-abortionists here, even some of the fundamentalist nutbirds who’d like to see people executed for taking the Lord’s name in vain, have far more weight than the people on the pro-choice side, who seem flip in their dismissals and also have nothing comparable to giant blowups of dead fetuses. (They have murdered doctors and dead women with protruding coat hangers, but fetuses trump everything.) It’s almost better for the pro-choice case to let the anti-abortionists go on and on about Satan worshippers barbecuing babies and forcing sixth-graders to choose homosexuality. (I’m not caricaturing their position—at one point Terry shouts, “Jeffrey Dahmer believed in freedom of choice!”)
I’m glad Nat Hentoff is in the movie. I remember the civil-liberties beacon from my days at the Village Voice, where he was shunned by most of the women on staff for his views on abortion. He’s a lefty atheist who also happens to believe that life begins when the sperm meets the egg—a view I find convincing. But the answer, as the movie’s pro-choice activists maintain, isn’t banning abortion but making birth control easier to obtain—exactly what the Bible-thumpers proclaim will lead Americans further down the road to perdition, and which is why they’d like to end the divide between church and state, rewrite the Constitution, and turn the United States into a theocracy. Lake of Fire centers on abortion, but Kaye understands that while dead fetuses are the hook, the agenda covers the whole life cycle.