Lake of Fire

Amid the footage of protestors, zealots, and activists featured in Tony Kaye’s documentary Lake of Fire, it is linguist and political provocateur Noam Chomsky who best outlines Kaye’s approach to the subject matter of his abortion film: “Choice is legitimate,” he says. “Preserving life is legitimate. And sometimes they come into conflict.” 
Unrated, 152 minutes
Amid the footage of protestors, zealots, and activists featured in Tony Kaye’s documentary Lake of Fire, it is linguist and political provocateur Noam Chomsky who best outlines Kaye’s approach to the subject matter of his abortion film: “Choice is legitimate,” he says. “Preserving life is legitimate. And sometimes they come into conflict.”
Kaye has spent the past 17 years working to compile the definitive film on abortion. The result is a rootless, grueling, and overlong piece that contains some of the most emotionally fraught sentiments on abortion caught on film.
Shot mostly in 35-millimeter black-and-white, Kaye has interviewed a myriad of spokesmen and bystanders on both sides of the debate. NOW advocates, scholars, ministers, protestors, and advocates appear throughout, making their arguments with varying degrees of effectiveness. His sprawling film actively tries to engage the competing sides of the issue, though his skill with cinematic manipulation shapes the argument throughout: Rhetorically, the film is weighted against the pro-life cause.
Kaye interviews the most fervent pro-lifers, countering their near zealotry with reasoned and thoughtful approaches from their opponents. The obvious contradiction in meeting violence against unborn children with violence against their perpetrators is well documented, while the extreme close-ups used to focus on some of the film’s most fervent subjects gives an added impression of deranged fanaticism.
But Kaye revels in contradiction, and Lake of Fire travels adeptly between the shifting expectations of friend and foe. The strongest case for life articulated in the film is made by liberal writer and Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff; Norma McCorvey, whose participation as Jane Roe in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case won American women the right to abortion nationwide, describes her conversion to a Christian pro-life activist. Religious zealots who insist that sinners will burn in a “lake of fire” end up condemning themselves to fervent irrelevance, while doctors and patients who invite Kaye into their surgeries to show the benefits of choice inadvertently make some of the strongest cases for life caught on screen.
This morally contradictory and complicated subject matter puts Kaye in familiar territory. His 1998 film American History X was the empathetic story of a white supremacist murderer that won its star, Edward Norton, an Oscar nomination, while editing disputes effectively ruined Kaye’s Hollywood career.
He completed the film in the midst of making Lake of Fire, and the similarities in approach are considerable. Despite Derek Vinyard’s racist and violent actions, Kaye depicted his lead in that film as a sympathetic and conflicted man. At the time, it was widely considered one of the most violent films ever made, and Lake of Fire will surely be remembered for the gruesome moments it displays — for instance, when the camera stalls momentously on the body of a woman who hemorrhaged to death while performing her own abortion.

The final moments of a late-term abortion are nearly too brutal to watch. Allowing Kaye’s cameras into his operating room, an abortion practitioner walks the director through the safety precautions of the procedure, concluding by sifting through the aftermath to ensure that all remnants of the pregnancy were thoroughly removed. The doctor nonchalantly washes the blood away to reveal part of a child’s head and a fully formed hand reaching out to the camera.
Kaye’s film is replete with similarly unsettling and complicated moments. His interest in violence motivated by anger and frustration focuses much of the film on the 1990s, when a rash of abortion clinic bombings and shootings wracked the nation. Footage of abortion protestors and advocates runs alongside court scenes and interviews with the participants and victims. Interviews with Paul Hill are especially chilling; the Presbyterian minister appears on camera to defend activist Michael Griffin’s killing of abortion provider David Gunn. And Kaye shows what now appears inevitable: Hill’s eventual murder of an abortion doctor and his security guard.
By choosing to focus on this timeframe and faction of hypocrisy and aggression in the pro-life movement, Kaye implicitly attaches pro-lifers to violence. But the reasoned arguments for choice are similarly undermined by the obvious life being snuffed out in the procedures shown.
The final 30 minutes of the film focus on another abortion, undergone by a woman named Stacey. The film follows her through her entire day, detailing her background, motivations, and feelings about the abortion.
After two hours of emotional bombardment, viewers may be too psychologically drained to grapple with this story, but the relevance to the director is evident. Stacey inadvertently embodies myriad cases for and against legalized abortion.
This is her fifth pregnancy. She has carried one child to term and given it up for adoption, while the rest were aborted. She doesn’t seem ready to support a child; she has been abused and disfigured by men. She recites her strong determination to terminate the pregnancy, and then breaks down in the waiting room afterwards.
The woman’s predicament works as a sort of Rorschach test for the viewer’s stance on the issue. In her first term of pregnancy, her right to abortion is not as legally fraught as the one depicted in the earlier footage, yet watching the procedure is nearly as difficult.
As the doctor sifts through the remnants of her pregnancy and the blood and fetal tissue run down the drain, I could not get that image of a child’s hand out of my mind. I still can’t.

Meghan Keane is a film critic for the New York Sun.

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  • Joanna Bogle

    Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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