When the Academy Award nominations are announced later this week, one name you won’t be hearing is “After Tiller” for best documentary feature. The film failed to make the shortlist of 15 documentaries in contention (announced in December), which is an extremely unfortunate omission. No, it may not be a crowd-pleaser like “20 Feet from Stardom” or innovate the art form as “Stories We Tell” and “The Act of Killing” have, but “After Tiller” is an immensely important piece that, with any luck, will be screened in communities for months and years to come.
The film wastes no time in introducing the audience to Dr. George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who provided third-trimester abortions for women and was killed in 2009 after multiple murder attempts. At the time this documentary was made, only four doctors remained in the nation that provided these highly controversial abortions, and over the course of an hour and a half, filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson provide an intimate look into their lives and clinics.
Regardless of where you stand on abortion, Shane and Wilson successfully humanize the issue – showing that these doctors and patients are a far cry from the heartless murderers that impassioned opponents make them out to be. They illustrate the moral push-and-pull that each unique case presents, asking the audience to consider that it may not only be the best decision for the mother, but for the unborn child as well. In most cases, the babies are inflicted with a serious illness in the womb – not expected to be able to move, likely to become a 'vegetable', and oftentimes, not predicted to live any more than a few years (with that time spent primarily in and out of hospitals).
The filmmakers also make the effective choice of never showing us the patients’ faces, instead allowing us to linger on their trembling hands, nervous hair twirls and sometimes quivering voices as they relay their individual stories. We learn that these women deliver their stillborn babies – often naming them and giving them proper funerals – and soon this narrative becomes much more about motherhood and a woman’s choice to do what she believes is best for her child, her body and herself. “Tiller” drives home the point that these are never cut-and-dry decisions for any woman to make, and that it often takes a massive emotional toll on the doctors as well.
What this documentary could have benefitted from would have been a bit more perspective from the incredibly vocal opponents of abortion, shown protesting outside clinics and to their local city councils in an attempt to drive these doctors out of town. While we’re given their stances through enraged speeches and graphic picket signs, it might have been nice to get a few interviews from them.
From a viewer’s perspective, I often found myself questioning whether or not these demonstrators understood the very specific qualifications a woman needs in order to get a third-trimester abortion and that the majority of these unborn babies suffer from incurable diseases. As the documentary nears its conclusion, we see one case of a woman that is denied a third-trimester abortion (along with a folder of dozens of similar refusals). It could have been insightful to know if an avid opponent’s views would change at all, had they been given the information we’re presented in the documentary.
Minor curiosities aside, “After Tiller” offers a devastating perspective on a hot-button issue, and shows that this is so much more than the finger-wagging, grandstanding politicians we often associate with abortion. It’s easy to forget that this is about humanity, first and foremost, and “Tiller” powerfully puts faces to the debate.