Dawn Porter didn’t know that the release of her documentary, Trapped, would coincide with the Supreme Court case that will either enforce or dismantle the very abortion restrictions Trapped aims to illuminate.
She did know, though, that she had met an exceptional character in the form of Dr. Willie Parker. Parker, a black physician from Alabama, has dedicated his career to providing reproductive healthcare, including abortions, for women in the South. He travels among Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi to serve as many women as he can. He is a religious man and believes his work aligns with, rather than contradicts, his faith, though the protesters outside the clinics he visits not-so-respectfully disagree.
Porter met Parker after the 2013 premiere of her second film, Gideon’s Army, which focused on three public defenders in the Deep South. In the restrictive world of the TRAP laws for which her documentary is named — Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers, which is exactly what it sounds like — Porter found a story about people she sensed she hadn’t heard enough about before: Low-income women and women of color who seek abortions. She was stunned at the lengths to which clinics need to go to stay open when conservative politicians want to legislate them out of existence.
Trapped premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking, and opens in theaters on March 4. It follows a handful of abortion providers and lawyers who navigate the labyrinthine hellscape that is basic reproductive healthcare. I spoke with Porter by phone about the cinematic limitations of telling a story that mostly takes place in clinics and centers on women who, understandably, have reservations about appearing on camera, resisting the impulse to only include “sympathetic” characters, and what audience she hopes her film has the power to reach.
Abortion is a sprawling, complicated issue. How did you decide to zero in on TRAP laws?
You know, when I was at Sundance with my film Gideon’s Army, I had a conversation with someone from Planned Parenthood who told me about their efforts in the South to open a clinic. And it kind of put on my radar screen the difficulty of getting an abortion clinic open. I was doing a shoot in Jackson, Mississippi, and I was reading the local papers, and I read that there was only one clinic in the entire state. And I was just so shocked by that. I called them up and I went over that day. I met Dr. Willie Parker. Here was this African-American man flying around to all these clinics; he was sometimes the only doctor working there. I felt like I wasn’t hearing a story about low-income women, about women of color, about how access is being denied in a political way. So I actually was just really interested in him, and he’s interested in all those things — in the political ramifications of his work and the medicine.
Is there something in particular about the South that fascinates you? Are you from there? Your earlier films are also based in southern communities.
It’s kind of worked out that way. I’m from New York City, born in the Bronx, raised outside the city. But I keep finding these really interesting stories, and I really like stories about people who are doing unlikely things. And I felt like, Dr. Parker is from the South. He was born in Alabama. He’s critical of his hometown in the way that you’re critical of something that you love. He’s fighting to make it better place.
I ask in part because one of the lines that stayed with me is when June Ayers, who is the co-owner of Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery and is from Alabama, says, “There are times when I honestly feel like Alabama is a third world country.” I was amazed to hear her say that. It’s something I would expect to hear from an outsider, not a native. Were you surprised to hear her say that?
I love that question! The answer is definitely yes. I thought a lot about putting that line in. I didn’t want to be the New Yorker trashing the South. But for her to say it, I think, it’s different. And there was this one day — she’s also a cancer survivor, and sometimes protesters will yell things at her like, “Is your cancer back? God is punishing you.” I was with her when she was having a particularly bad day. And I asked her, “Why don’t you just leave?” And she said: “I’m southern too, and I’m not leaving my ladies because I have choices.” And it really stuck with me. It’s like our families: As imperfect as they are, we still love them. I think there’s a lot more people in states that are going through some political upheaval that feel that way. They’re going to fight for the place they live rather than just leave.
Talk to me about the aesthetics of the film. There seem to be a lot of limitations here: Women and girls seeking abortions who, for any number of reasons, won’t appear on camera; the interiors of abortion clinics not being the most attractive, cinematic places in the world. How did you figure out a visual language that would keep an audience member’s attention?
An abortion clinic with fluorescent lights is not exactly a visually compelling place. And also we had people who were, understandably, camera-shy. So it became very important to me to establish the South as a character. We used a lot of exterior shooting. The South is beautiful, sweeping vistas and beautiful sunsets.
And the other thing that’s compelling is people are just interesting. You have to find good characters so that you’re so drawn into what they’re saying, you felt you needed to watch them. Marva Sadler, the African-American woman who is the director of clinical services at Whole Woman’s Health, I would say to her, ‘You don’t even know how beautiful you are on camera. You’re so watchable.’ The film is about people, not an issue. How are these people handling a difficulty? So I like close-up shots, I like feeling like you can see their point of view. That’s something I’m attracted to.
When you’re in the clinic, there’s a big difference between being outside and inside. Outside, although it’s beautiful, it’s a scary place. It’s a place of protesters and danger, where people are trying to close you down or kill you. And it doesn’t look scary, it looks gorgeous: The lawn is a beautiful green, you’re on a lovely southern street. But that’s where the danger is. And inside, which is not very attractive, is like heaven. It’s warm and safe, and they work really hard to make their patients feel warm and safe. So we try to be kind of tighter on the inside shots, so you were feeling the warmth of the people inside.
One thing that really stuck out to me is that, even though exceptional cases are what dominate the conversation when politicians talk about abortion — exceptions for rape victims, for minors, and so on — the film doesn’t even introduce girls that young until the very end. Most women who have abortions already have children, but we rarely hear about them; but in Trapped, most of the women who are seeking abortions already have children and weren’t victims of sexual violence. Near the end, you introduce a 14-year-old rape victim who has never even had a pelvic exam. Can you talk about the thinking behind that structure, and which girls and women to include?
Sara Gilman is the editor. I think one of the first conversations we had was about: Should we be looking at a higher number of women? We didn’t want to make a situation where we were only showing the “acceptable” abortions. We are not here to judge people’s reasons. So we worked hard to get a range of stories and to be like, the point is, this is every woman. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you, but it’s not my business. One in three American women will have an abortion. Look to your left, look to your right: One of you is probably going to have to make that choice. We worked hard to try to get a range of stories, races, backgrounds. This is a much more common experience for people than it’s portrayed to be. It is private, but it shouldn’t be so stigmatized, considering how common a situation is. So I appreciate that you noticed that because we worked really hard to do it.
I felt sort of conflicted in those scenes. Because their stories are so moving and powerful, and they seem to be empowered by the telling. But also, they shouldn’t have to do that. They shouldn’t have to explain to me, or anyone, why they made the choices they made.
Exactly. You both crave it, and you shouldn’t have to have it. We struggled with it mightily. Not just choosing “sympathetic” people, because that’s disgusting. But what ends up happening is, they’re all sympathetic. Just hearing them talk. And how generous is that, for them to talk? Even as I was having these interviews, I kept thinking, it’s none of my business. But they wanted to talk. People clearly had to work this through. And you can tell from the interviews how much time people had already spent processing, so they were ready to talk. It’s the audience that hasn’t gone through it. So I really liked talking to them. It was probably one of my favorite parts of the film, was getting to meet other people and tell their stories. I like talking to people.
Was there anything you had to cut that it just broke your heart to lose?
Yes. We filmed Dr Parker and Nancy Northup, head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, at a hearing in Washington, D.C. They were testifying on behalf of federal legislation that would take this out of the courts entirely. And Ted Cruz was what you would expect, very derogatory and rude and all the rest of it. That part of federal legislation didn’t really fit with the story we were telling. But to see a U.S. Senator treat Dr Parker, Nancy — these accomplished, professional people — in such a dismissive way, I thought, it says so much about our political system. And this is way before the presidential race began. Dr Parker described working in Ghana, and Ted Cruz said to Dr. Parker, “Well, in civilized countries, we have…” Obviously, now I really wish that was in because I think that speaks volumes of his character. So that was kind of heartbreaking.
CREDIT: Trapped/Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos
And then there was a woman who had a baby who was two years old, and she was there for an abortion, and she desperately wanted a second baby. She’d just gotten a job, had just gotten off of welfare, and she couldn’t afford it. And she just cried through the whole thing. But she decided she didn’t want to have it filmed. But hearing her agony, it just made me furious. She was such a responsible person, doing such a good job in her life, and she couldn’t have something she really wanted so badly. And second, she was just harassed on her way in and called a baby killer. And she was just in agony. Every time I was tired and thought I couldn’t finish, I literally thought about her and that I had to do the best I can. You cannot let them down because people are just not listening to women.
Hearing how thoughtful these women are about the choices they’ve made really makes the idea of a waiting period sound even more insulting. Like she hasn’t already given it enough thought; like she’s never thought about it at all.
It’s absurd! No one wakes up and says, “I’m going to have an abortion today and then I’ll go to the gym.” It’s a hugely important thing that people agonize about, sometimes for too long. And they realize they can’t find anyplace to go. And that’s what happens to a lot of women in the South. By the time they come to a decision, the clinic is closing, it could be three weeks before they can get in, and some clinics only go to 13 weeks. If you can’t get into Montgomery, you had to drive to Hunstville, which only has one doctor.
At what point in the process did you realize that the timing of the film could coincide with this SCOTUS case?
I’m a lawyer, so I was aware that the cases were working their way through the federal courts. But you can never tell when a court is going to take a case. They could have held onto these for years. I was more concerned with having the election come up. I was really hoping we could finish the film in order to be involved in the election conversation. Literally, at the end of our shooting schedule, we started getting on SCOTUS watch. Because the lawyers were like, “I think they’re going to take one of these cases.” We had to extend our edit because we didn’t know about it.
Who do you imagine is the audience for this film? Are you expecting to convert people who hate abortion, or do you not even expect them to want to see a movie like this? Are you concerned about only reaching people who already support abortion?
You think about your audience a lot, particularly when you’re doing something like this that’s controversial and people have such strong opinions. I try not to be unnecessarily offensive. I never want to have blinders about my bias. I grew up in New York City, in a multi-faith community. I did not grow up in an evangelical community. It’s very easy for us liberal New Yorkers to be really rude and dismissive, and I did not want to do that. So I thought very carefully, and one of our executive producers grew up in a fundamentalist home. And she would watch things and say, “This will make them mad.” And I don’t care about people being mad; I don’t want to be disrespectful. I can say I don’t agree with you, but that doesn’t give me the right to mock somebody.
We tried to include, particularly with the protesters, the heart of their argument and what the providers experience. But I left a lot out because of that. It would have been pretty easy to show some really terrible behavior. I feel like most people can understand that already. I don’t need to shock people. People called Dr Parker a “filthy negro abortionist.” That’s shocking, but I was like, I don’t know if I need that. It’s hard. You make choices and you hope you’re not pulling punches, but you also need to get your story through.
I think I was very much aiming the film at people who are probably open or maybe are pro-choice but not active. Because I am not going to change anybody’s mind. If you believe abortion is murder, nothing I say will change that. But if you believe you’re pro-choice but you’re not active one way or the other, I think you should care about what’s happening. So I’m most thinking about those folks, in terms of: What are you going to stand up for? And I was also really thinking a lot about the people who are providers and medical personnel, because they don’t talk about their work. Imagine if you couldn’t talk about your job. It’s a huge part of who you are. Their lives are already something so closed off, which leads to its own kind of tension. So I wanted to provide a space where they could say, “I’m proud of what I do.”
Hearing someone like Dr. Parker talk about how he believes this work is the best expression of his religion — that he provides abortions because he’s a Christian, not in spite of it — it kind of reminded me of Galileo insisting that you could believe the sun was the center of the universe and be deeply religious, that those two things worked together. The whole idea of science versus religion being this centuries-old falsehood that plenty of devout people don’t subscribe to.
It’s true! There’s a lot of good people in the world. And they do selfless things and and they’re resilient, and determined, and I find that very affirming.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because when I told people that I’d spent the morning watching this film, they would respond with something like, “Wow, that sounds depressing.” And I was surprised by how much that was not the case. There are moments that are just unbearably sad, and there is a lot of information that is infuriating. But I found spending time with the abortion providers — hearing them talk about their dedication to this work, just the depths of their compassion — was really uplifting.
I’m so glad you thought that, because that’s how I feel. I’m so glad there’s people like that in the world. It kind of keeps you going. If you want to say there’s a God, God is for me, in a lot of ways, something beyond yourself. And they’re not perfect people, but they’re just doing something deeply human. They have compassion and empathy, and they’re fighters, and they stand for something. I think that’s something I really am grateful exists.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.