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'Lake of Fire' Examines America's Abortion Debates

Arts & Life

'Lake of Fire' Examines America's Abortion Debates

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The Abortion Debate

Sixteen years ago, director Tony Kaye began working on Lake of Fire, a documentary about the debate over abortion in the United States.

Best known for his work on American History X, Kaye's new documentary tackles all sides of the political and religious controversy.

'Lake of Fire'

An anti-abortion protester in a scene from the documentary Lake of Fire. THINKFilm hide caption

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THINKFilm
  • Director: Tony Kaye
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 152 minutes

British director Tony Kaye chose not to shoot this abortion documentary in color — to demonstrate, he says, that a controversy many view as black and white is really about shades of gray. That's a nice philosophical point, though the absence of red in the palette of a film dealing with abortion might also be seen as a way of taking sides.

The documentary, some 17 years in the making, goes to great lengths (literally so, at 152 minutes) to include disparate viewpoints, which is not quite the same as being evenhanded. When Kaye includes extreme footage — whether of the blood-and-gore variety in abortion clinics or of the crazed-fanatic sort at rallies outside them — it's often explosively effective. It's hard to imagine even the most ardent pro-choice advocate being unmoved by the sight of the severed limbs of a fetus aborted at four months. And most pro-life supporters will presumably be similarly distressed to hear fundamentalist extremists advocating summary execution not just for doctors who perform abortions, but also for "sodomites, feminazis, and blasphemers."

Kaye asks sociologists to narrate the stories of Michael Griffin and Paul Hill, both convicted for murdering doctors who performed abortions; he pairs that with visuals that include startling footage of the two men at anti-abortion events prior to their crimes. Of course, juxtaposing people who describe pro-choice advocates as devil worshipers with, say, the nuanced musings of cultural critic Noam Chomsky (who talks of finding a middle ground between extremes) has the effect of weighting the argument somewhat.

And it's reasonable to wonder at the fact that most of the talking heads Kaye has assembled in Lake of Fire (the title refers to hell) on both sides of the argument are men.

Still, when the focus narrows to the personal — to the story of a woman undergoing first counseling and then the actual procedure of terminating her pregnancy, for instance, or to the transformation of Roe v. Wade's original "Jane Roe" into a fervent right-to-lifer — the film becomes undeniably powerful in its specifics.