The Coat Hanger Project and Abortion Democracy

Directed by Angie Young and Sarah Diehl. 2008, USA & Germany. Unrated.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 10/23/2008)

In what turned out to be an intimate and enlightening experience, two documentarians screened their films addressing the complex issue of abortion Friday night in the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. Sarah Diehl of Berlin, Germany joined D.C.-based Angie Young in presenting Abortion Democracy and The Coat Hanger Project, their respective debuts. The MySpace-friends-turned-film-tour-mates also led a post-screening Q&A to open up a dialogue between themselves and the small but lively audience.

Diehl’s Abortion Democracy compared and contrasted the abortion rights situations in two countries of different continents: South Africa and Poland. In a state of affairs defying all logic, abortions are easier to obtain in Poland — where the Roman Catholic-influenced government placed a ban on childbirth termination — than in South Africa, a nation with some of the world’s most liberal abortion policies. Doctors and nurses practicing abortion in Capetown face castigation from their neighbors, fellow church members and even families. One young adult interviewee related the tragic story of how her parents kicked her to the street once they discovered she wanted to abort her baby in second trimester. Forced to rest on park benches and in shopping malls while pregnant, she literally sleeps with one eye open. The second film, Young’s The Coat Hanger Project, addresses the importance of reproductive rights activism in members of the post-1973 generation, a constituency courted by lawmakers seeking to put caps on abortion. The film argues that those born after Roe v. Wade take the privilege of clinical abortions for granted, forgetting the hundreds of thousands of women who died from infections borne of self-induced abortions. We hear horror stories of desperate women using bent wire hangers (the universal symbol for the pro-choice movement), sewing needles and bike pumps when they couldn’t access safer options due to governmental restriction. We learn about a female veteran of the War in Iraq who had to self-induce because military hospitals refuse to perform the procedure.

On the upside, we also learn about a source of hope for the future: organizations of socially conscious youngsters, such as the Feminist Outlawz of Atlanta, Georgia, who unite abortion rights activism with gender, racial and ethnic equality and LGBTQ rights in their Planned Parenthood counter-protests. One of the film’s highlights was watching “Father Blah Blah” — a Feminist Outlaw clad in clerical garb — drown out the chants of sanctimonious protesters at an abortion clinic by shouting “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!”

But I have a confession to make: I’m not a big fan of abortion. To be honest, I came into the double-feature screening with a lot of reservations. And at the end of Abortion Democracy, I felt more disgusted than anything. Many of the documentary’s interviewees came off as stuffy and arrogant, dismissing the idea of abortion as a loss as idiotic. This just in: you can’t win hearts and minds by treating those who disagree with you like they’re stupid. The poor lighting, jarring sound editing and half-assed subtitles (misspellings, lack of punctuation, skipping around instead of staying put on the bottom of the screen) added to my negative reaction to the film.

The Coat Hanger Project, however, succeeded where Abortion Democracy did not. This is because the movie embraced ambivalence, believing the strict binary of pro-life and pro-choice hampers discussion. Instead of categorizing everyone either as an intelligent, pro-choice liberal or a gun-toting, war-loving, ignorant pro-lifer, Project featured a whole breadth of opinions. I came to realize that I concur with one man who said that although every abortion is sad and a loss of humanity, banning or limiting abortion would be an even greater loss. Despite any given laws, women who want to end pregnancy will find a way, and providing them with safe clinics is preferable to back-alley abortions resulting in the death of not only the child but also the mother. It also helps that Project displays some kind of cheer and optimism despite adversity instead of feeling impossibly bleak.

Furthermore, I was wrong in my preview to doubt the documentaries’ ability to change minds. I changed mine, and that in itself is a testament to the persuasive power of cinema.

The after-show discussion proved to be a great opportunity to equalize the relationship between filmmaker and viewer. The active experience of presentation, feedback and response was a refreshing change from the one-sided flow of information in typical Friday night multiplex outings.

Now if only Beverly, Savoy and Boardman’s would follow suit and book the Coens.

To learn more about the films, get involved, watch the trailer or purchase the double-feature DVD, visit The Coat Hanger Project.