Unlike Rich Hill, director Tracy Droz Tragos’s exploitative documentary about youths living in one of Missouri’s most impoverished areas, Abortion: Stories Women Tell examines its titular subject with a compassionate eye for regional detail, this time focusing on the destruction of women’s lives in Missouri by religion, social conservatism, and violent men. Rather than selecting a few women to anchor an examination of abortion practices and its critics in the state, Tragos offers testimonies from dozens of women, the majority of whom have had an abortion for varying reasons. The film opens with Amie, whose unwanted pregnancy has become a source of intense anxiety due to both the emotional toll presented by the prospect of an abortion and the bill she’s tasked with personally paying since the father has shirked all responsibility. Tragos’s camera focuses on its subjects’ faces and movements as if attempting to make visible such psychological duress.
Although neither Tragos nor any of her subjects state as much, Stories Women Tell mounts an implicit case against any form of activism not wholly determined by secular, humanist logic. From the outset, Christian fundamentalists are recognized as the sole opponents of abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood, aspiring to overturn Roe v. Wade. That’s the mission espoused by Ann, whose decision to become a militant anti-abortion activist came after sitting in a parking lot and staring at a Planned Parenthood sign. Upon seeing her name enmeshed within the word “planned,” she exclaimed: “Lord, is this you asking me to get into the middle of this?”
Such a moment gives Stories Women Tell a breadth of insight that a doc exclusively concerned with the inner workings of an abortion clinic would lose. Ann exhibits the clinical symptoms of someone who’s pathologically paranoid and resorts to faulty logic as an explanation for her dogmatic behaviors, yet Tragos documents her statements without supplementary commentary or belittling gestures. Instead, Ann’s faith, which is ineluctably tied to self-sacrificing religious tenets, becomes a component of a larger, systemic problem that comprehensively treats women as vehicles for pain and guilt. It’s no coincidence that Tragos includes numerous sequences of worship with women chanting Christ’s name. Each woman’s struggle is positioned as a deeper issue related to the capitalistic vacuity that strips many women of their identities beyond an attachment to men, mortal or otherwise.
The film’s reach beyond simply pitting one argument against the other helps lessen some of Tragos’s more manipulative formal tactics, such as low-angle framings designed to elevate a given person’s pain to a nearly lyrical state. The presentation of Amie walking onto her front porch to forlornly smoke a cigarette strains for quotidian realism, as it appears that she’s been guided there by Tragos. But other instances unfold with a far-from-staged honesty that recalls Fredrick Wiseman’s approach to direct cinema. When Barb, an employee at a clinic in New Broomfield, sits outside her workplace to smoke and is hassled by a protester, she says, “I guess they think we don’t believe in God.” Though just a few dozen feet separate Barb and her harasser, Tragos’s telephoto lens hauntingly suggests an unbridgeable gulf.
Stories Women Tell believes, above all, in the strengths of the women at its core, but a despondent thread keeps the film’s resolution from striking a wholly hopeful note. It appears as though women like Amie and Ann will never see eye to eye on the issue of abortion, but the film doesn’t belabor this point. Rather, Tragos’s central claim relates to the shrinking legislative support that places shame on Amie for not just her abortion, but her very status as a woman. “I’m not a whore,” she says to herself at one point, as if it’s practice for defending herself against impending attacks on her actions. As the number of abortion clinics shrinks to only a couple in Missouri and Oklahoma, and state legislators waste time and money in hopes to pass bills that could overturn Roe v. Wade, Tragos sees only the women, on all fronts of the dispute, being damaged by policy reform in the name of Christian fundamentalism.