Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tony Kaye

MPAA Rating:

Running Time: 2:32

Release Date: 10/3/07 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Tony Kaye's harrowing documentary Lake of Fire tackles the biggest ethical debate of our time head on: abortion. Notice I said ethical. It is not a political issue, even though every election cycle brings it up as though it's a point on which to win votes. It is a medical and health issue to a degree, as it elicits stories of back alley abortions that have the very strong potential to do more damage than aid to the women who procure them. It is only a legal issue in that it is a right in the United States. Ultimately, though, it is a moral issue, and the strength of Kaye's argument is that he has no argument.

He presents both sides, forces us to deal with the upsetting reality over which both sides are battling (and the distressing way it has become a literal battle), and dares us to make a decision about which side is right. Lake of Fire overwhelms us with valid points on both sides, the meeting points in between, and the impossibility of imagining there being any resolution to the debate within our lifetimes. It is an important film—not because of the subject matter but because of the way Kaye demands we throw out our preconceived notions and face the issue without walls to protect us.

Kaye filmed interviews and protests, held on to records and news clippings, from the early 1990s on. The film begins with the South Dakota legislature passing legislation in 2006 that would ban abortion within the state except in cases to save the life of a pregnant woman. It passed in February of that year, was signed by the governor in March, and was rejected by the voters of South Dakota in November.

Those last two details I gathered from the Associated Press, but that attempt by a state government ultimately—some of them hoped—to overturn Roe v. Wade is Kaye's entry point for two decades-worth of protests and the debates—philosophical, moral, political, et al—that arise in the process. The film starts of the perspective of pro-lifers, who annually hold the March for Life on January 22 (the date of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973) to hold a rally/memorial in Washington, D.C. It's a somber event—men and women hammer small crosses on the National Mall to represent abortions. They have speeches; one man talks about the look on his younger brother's face when he learns that his girlfriend is going to have an abortion. They sing.

Enter protestors on the pro-choice side. They chant as one of the heads of the pro-life rally tries to talk to them. "You can't talk to these people," he bemoans. The irony, of course, and the crux of the problem at the heart of the national debate on the issue is that the pro-life side speaks of God and the Bible without listening to the pro-choice protesters. Someone on the pro-choice side yells out, "What if you don't believe in God?" There is no narration; Kaye offers no commentary. He lets this scene play out as a powerful, factual document of the cul-de-sac of a debate.

Now enter the interview subjects. Lawyer and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz talks about the importance of personal choice at the center of his opinion. He also recalls that when his wife was pregnant she received an amniocentesis. The ultrasound technician pointed out that the fetus was reaching for the needle. He admits he was taken aback by that scene in his view on abortion. If it wasn't his baby or if the pregnancy wasn't planned or any other circumstances other than the one he was in, would he think differently?

Then there's the case of Nat Hentoff, who is an atheist and against abortion. He sees the point of conception as the start of a developing human being, hence his opposition. Kaye has chosen intelligent people who have clearly taken the time to consider their points of view, and even they are occasionally left questioning their perspective. That is not the case with the Religious Right as they are seen here. The film follows a disturbing track of murders of doctors who provide abortions, done in the name of unborn children (When someone states the situation is a religious war—"Jihad," he says—we shudder).

We meet John Burt, who was associated with two men found guilty of that crime and who was once a member of the KKK. Did he brainwash these people? Is there something larger behind the pro-life movement? Kaye uncovers a conspiracy theory about certain organizations within the Religious Right attempting to establish a theocracy in the United States over time; it's frightening stuff, considering the types involved (and their insistence that everything from sodomy to blasphemy is punishable by death), but it is a bit out of place. Less so is a profile of Norma McCorvey—more famously "Jane Roe" of the Supreme Court case—who has become a member of a pro-life group.

The film is not all talking heads, and there are two separate, unblinking depictions of an abortion procedure. One is distanced from the subject (Kaye only shows the backs of their heads) but detailed in the end result; the other is very personal, with the woman clearly showing the insensitivity of the case that women go through this procedure without any rational thought. There are some things too complex, too beyond our understanding as human beings, and the issue of abortion is one that raises nothing less than our fragile comprehension of life. It's something we must individually confront, and that's essentially the point of Lake of Fire.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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