Tony Kaye’s abortion documentary gives both sides equal time
Lake of Fire is a visionary documentary about the abortion debate 17 years in the making and running 152 minutes long. Focusing its stark lens on both the brutal murder of abortion doctors and the grisly realities of the abortion procedure, the film gets up close and intimate with doctors, patients, anti-abortion killers, and Norma McCorvey (a.k.a. Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, who has famously become an anti-abortion advocate). As comprehensive as it is complex, Lake of Fire refuses to present the controversy, like the film’s cinematography, in black and white.
British-born filmmaker Tony Kaye, a former advertising director, spoke to Utne Reader about the film and what advertising has to do with the abortion debate.
While several critics called Lake of Fire the best documentary of 2007, few people saw it in theaters. Do you think it will now find an audience on DVD?
I always saw this as a piece, like most books, that you can’t really read in one go. You don’t even want to read it in one go. It’s too dense. Although this [film] is finished, it’s not finished as a project. I’ve got a lot more footage. I intend to shoot more. There will be subsequent Lakes of Fire, or whatever I call it next. . . . I can’t think any household would be complete without this DVD.
American households, at least . . .
Well, there is no country in the world where everybody has such a keen political interest in everything. Unfortunately, with abortion, it’s such an incendiary subject in the first place, and, secondly, it’s doubly incendiary, because nobody’s right and everybody’s right. Because of the massive abstraction, we haven’t found a way through it. But we have to, because there’s something wrong. I’m not suggesting abortion is wrong, but there’s something wrong with the process. Fetuses should not be terminated, and people who passionately believe that shouldn’t be killing other people, and women should have complete choice of what they do with their bodies.
What sorts of reactions have you gotten about the film, from either camp?
Lake of Fire hasn’t really entered the discussion. But if one sits with a big audience, one learns a lot. Early in the film, when you see a woman go through a late-term abortion, and then you see a tiny hand, there’s a massive gulp in the audience. And this comes not from a passionate pro-life person. This is from a master manipulator who is trying to make a point. You hear a very smart doctor who is explaining, in quite clear and correct terms, why this process is 100 percent right, yet there is an amazing irony that this process is categorically wrong. That’s shocking for people who don’t know what abortion is, and I didn’t, though I went through one with a girlfriend a long time ago. I was upset at the time; I wanted us to have that baby born, but I went through it with her. I was very curious to know what it was, both spiritually and physically. To this day, I am shocked every time I see it.
Was that the seed for the project? Why did you initially decide to make this movie?
When I moved to America, abortion was on the front page because of the Buffalo riots [1992 abortion protests in Buffalo, New York]. That’s when I knew I wanted to make a film about it. It also comes from being an art director, always working with topical events, and noticing something that takes place in the media and rushing an advertisement through the system, knowing it was going to get tremendous reaction because the media and the populace were all focused on it.
The abortion debate seems to revolve around a kind of advertising; each side has its images, for example, the fetus and the wire hanger.
That’s right. It’s like what John Lennon and Yoko Ono did in the ’60s with peace; they started to sell peace like a bar of soap, and they did a good job and made a difference to people, me being one of them. With abortion, it’s the same thing. Pro-life and pro-choice are public relations labels; they don’t really make sense. Pro-life people are not against choice, and pro-choice people are not against life. It’s ridiculous. It’s Pepsi versus Coke. I believe Coke is like pro-life; it’s probably the better of the two products, but it’s still completely wrong and it’s not very good for you.
Did your interview subjects trust you to be more objective about the issue because you weren’t an American?
Trust didn’t really play a part. They were into it because they were talking for their cause. I told them: Talk to me, and I’m going to do everything I can to make you seem right. I’m not going to edit you in a way that’s going to make you look ridiculous, although you will look ridiculous if you say ridiculous things.
I know you set out to make an objective film, but how objective can you possibly be?
I think the text is pro-choice and the visuals are pro-life.