In a world where emotions run high at even the slightest hint of an argument (hell, people get up in arms at the sight of a new Miss America that isn’t a WASP), the room for intelligent, informative and influential debate with regards to big, hot button issues like climate change or LGBT rights is small. And it’s almost non-existent when a topic like late term abortion is thrown into the fray.
Back in 2009, this debate hit a boiling point when infamous doctor Dr. George Tiller, a Witchita, Kansas-based doctor who was at the time one of a small handful of doctors in the US who performed third-trimester abortions, was shot and killed. The eighth doctor to be killed following the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision, Tiller was one of the most outspoken supporters (which is not the right word, really, but hopefully the meaning comes across) of what he did and while his practice even alienated many hard-left Pro-Choice advocates and groups, he inspired a handful of other doctors to begin administering late term abortions.
And that’s where the new documentary After Tiller comes in. From directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, the film follows the tale of four physicians who must overcome everything from simple protests to actual death threats, in order to do what they think truly helps those in need. A deeply moving and truly insightful documentary about a topic that frankly, many people today don’t even feel comfortable mentioning outside of an actual political debate, After Tiller is not only one of this year’s best documentaries (or any type of film for that matter) but it is easily 2013’s most important film, and not just due to the topic being discussed.
After Tiller takes on easily the most aggressively debated topic in this country, abortion, and while that may sound like something simply done to insight an actual debate, the most powerful thing about this near masterpiece of a documentary is the tone with which it takes to the subject. Directors Shane and Wilson not only craft a genuinely touching character study, but one that entirely refrains from either judging, or standing behind fully, what these men and women do. Instead, to this film’s benefit, we become privy to all of the internal struggles each doctor faces, and also take a look at those struggles faced by the patients.
That’s where this film’s brilliance truly comes in. Uttered near the end of the film, one doctor states that, instead of taking this as a black and white topic, the one thing routinely neglected in this abortion debate is truly the struggles of the woman about to give birth. Be it her health or her economic status, not every case is the exact same, and even similar cases can be polarizing and different due to things like a support system for the mother, if the father is present, or the like. The film takes great care in not discussing the topic in a way to truly invoke a debate, but instead proclaim that this debate is being taken on in an entirely wrong and skewed manner. A far more complex discussion is needed, and if one can get past the inherent bombast that is the idea of a third trimester abortion, this film truly becomes a powerfully breathtaking look at this country’s most polarizing conversation.
And it helps that the central figures are immensely relatable, and also painted in as human a light as one could ever imagine. These men and women (LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson, the only four doctors this nation offers as late-term abortion providers) are seen as flesh and blood monsters in their own communities, yet stand as strong as one could imagine due to their genuine belief that what they are doing is truly right. Hell, they have struggles with this even being “right,” but they sure as hell believe that what they are doing is genuinely helping the patient in need. Viewers are given insight into not only their discussions with patients, but their inner struggles with this type of operation, and it truly becomes as emotionally powerful and breathlessly compelling narratives you’ll see all year.
That said, the topic is inherently off putting to many. The name George Tiller, at first mention, will send people into a heated discussion that may make getting into the meat of this picture a rather tough concept. It’s a film that doesn’t shy away from the topic, or the actual debate itself, often pairing these doctors up with archival footage of the Tiller case, or their own turmoil in their own communities. However, if one can get passed all the initial bombast of the central topic, what follows is likely 2013’s greatest and most important documentary.