Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson
One spring morning in 2009, during the Sunday service at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, an usher handing out leaflets to the congregation was shot through the eye at point-blank range. The shooter had likely assumed that the usher wore body armor; he was right. In his weekday life, the usher had been Dr. George Tiller, and according to this in-depth documentary, his death meant that the number of American physicians who openly perform late-term abortions ticked down to four.
“Unless people understand what’s going on for the woman, it’s impossible to support it,” says Dr. Sella, one of the four, and that’s part of what After Tiller sets out to do: to clarify the often desperate circumstances of these women, as well as the doctors to whom they turn, who are frequently the ones to make the choice as to whether to proceed. The profiled Drs. Carhart, Hern, Sella, and Robinson are all protégés of Tiller—married men and women, middle-or-older-aged—who emerge, despite threats and abuse, as determined to carry on with their work. For Carhart, this means relocating his family to Maryland, and for Sella and Robinson, flying on alternate weeks to Arizona to work at a clinic there. As the camera trails them and their staff through consultations with women awaiting the procedure (sometimes with their partners or parents), Brooklyn-based directors Shane and Wilson slowly spin out the complexity of the pro-choice position as taken by people for whom it’s not just a stance but a defining action.
That isn’t to say that all the women accepted for the procedure are particularly pro-choice. One is a teenager whom a counselor is hesitant to admit as she professes hatred for herself, the doctor, everyone. Others have recently been told that their children won’t be viable—that is, that their health is severely compromised and they likely won’t live long, and certainly not well. What these would-be parents defend as an act of mercy the protesters, massing or kneeling outside, decry as murder. They hover as a furious, self-appointed conscience that the camera skims over whenever a doctor enters his or her office—where the windows, most likely, are bulletproof.
Opens September 20 at Film Forum and Lincoln Center