I haven’t seen all of the movies that advanced to the final round of consideration for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary, but there are some fine candidates among them. God Loves Uganda explores evangelical Christianity’s influence in that country, and in particular the ways in which Christianity has been used to justify the persecution of LGBT people. It wisely allows Americans who have moved to Uganda to proselytize to speak at length, letting their words make the film’s point without framing them with much in the way of editorializing. And the film’s subjects who are critical of rising homophobia are themselves Ugandans, including a number of clergymen, dispelling the idea that Western liberals are projecting alien ideals onto Uganda. It’s an important reminder that faraway places aren’t simply laboratory settings where developed countries play out their ideological conflicts, but places where people have a wide range of ideological, intellectual, cultural, and financial motivations for the foreigners they choose to collaborate with.
20 Feet From Stardom, which I wrote about earlier this year, does something different, taking a familiar cultural phenomenon and letting us plumb the depths of it. Many of are familiar with the concept of backup singers, but that doesn’t mean we knew about the church singing traditions that trained up so many of the greats, the dual challenges of ambition and restrictive recording contracts that have made it difficult for some backup singers to break out into solo careers, and the relationships between backup singers and headline artists. The documentary is gorgeous, glossy, and deeply interesting.
And Stories We Tell, filmmaker Sarah Polley’s reexamination of home videos and other artifacts of her late mother’s life and acting career, is the kind of movie that we’d hail as an indie gem if it had been fiction. Polley’s film starts out as a nostalgia trip, and develops into a much more complicated mystery as Polley discovers that all of the jokes from her childhood about how she must have had a different father than her siblings turn out to be based in reality. It’s a revelation that could have been remarkably traumatic, but Stories We Tell is an exceptionally kind movie without ever sacrificing Polley’s search for the truth. It’s a reminder of the great, and often-forgotten, power of decency.
But I would have loved for After Tiller, which might be the best political documentary I’ve ever seen, to have been in the mix. Abortion is a subject that it’s almost impossible to have an actual discussion about, and late-term abortions are the most vexed sub-topic in that realm of conversation. Like God Loves Uganda, After Tiller largely doesn’t make arguments or deploy talking points. It breaks the existing cycle of the discussion simply by listening, particularly to late-term abortion providers, and to families who are seeking their services.
The filmmakers listened in counseling sessions where one abortion doctor, Shelley Sella, explains to two different couples that, “Both of you have babies who are really sick, and both of you have babies who would suffer a lot,” so neither family suffers by believing they’re alone. Dr. Susan Robinson carefully runs through a checklist that a couple needs to complete to prepare for burial services for the child they can’t give a healthy life to. Later, we watch her turn down a French woman who was seeking an abortion at 35 weeks not because her fetus was critically ill, but because she’d delayed dealing with her pregnancy, and debate with her intake nurse whether or not to perform a procedure on a 16-year-old practicing Catholic with apparently conflicting views about the procedure. “It’s guilt because we’re doing what we’re doing and guilt because if we brought him into this world he wouldn’t have any quality of life,” agonizes one family who have learned that the child they wanted would be born terribly debilitated, and have no prospect for improvement. Dr. Warren Hern worries about the risks to which he’s exposing the family he started late in life by continuing to practice a profession that he deeply believes in. Dr. LeRoy Carhart still mourns the lives of his horses, who died in a barn burned down by anti-abortion extremists in an attempt to intimidate him.
Unlike many political documentaries, which seek to cut through tangles of argument and crystallize a position, After Tiller brings out all of the shades of intense emotion that are involved in seeking out and performing a late-term abortion. The French woman in question may give life to the stereotype of a reckless, selfish, abortion seeker, but every other woman — and most of the subjects in the movie are married — is disconsolate about the choice she’s facing. When the decision is between raising a child who will be in perpetual pain and having a late-term abortion of a wanted pregnancy, or between carrying an unsafe pregnancy of an unhealthy child to term and a late-term abortion that will allow a couple to conceive again, it’s very comforting to consider that dilemma in the abstract, rather than in person. And the misery of this situation, and the path that the best option is a terrible one, turn out to be very good tools for creating empathy for the couples in question, and the doctors who provide them comfort even as they’re under almost constant physical and emotional threat.
After Tiller provides a service on two levels. It’s a wonderful investigation of an astonishingly difficult subject. And it’s a powerful reminder that argument isn’t always the most effective way for a film to reach its audience. Sometimes, the best thing a movie can do is to sit with you for a couple of hours. And listening to other people’s experiences can sit with you for far longer than an affirmation of what you already want to hear.