Considering how deliberately Tony Kaye makes his presence felt during the clunky opening moments of his abortion doc Lake of Fire—via a pseudo-subliminal flash-cut to critique an abstinence-promoting interviewee, and a credit sequence full of praying hand-shaped candles and soaring strings—it’s astonishing to find the remainder so lucid, even-keeled, and free from authorial hysterics. Made over a 15-year span from 1990 to 2005, Kaye’s two-and-a-half-hour documentary strives not for comprehensiveness but for expansiveness, its intent being to broaden the fiercely polarizing conversation about abortion by addressing its myriad components head-on. Or more specifically, what the firebrand American History X filmmaker tries to do is shift the debate away from absolutes, and toward a realistic understanding that, whether it be on a personal or political level, abortion is—as reflected by his stark, beautiful shades-of-gray cinematography—a multifaceted issue resolvable only through sober, rational discourse.
While Lake of Fire examines its subject matter from various angles—some more flattering to pro-lifers, some more satisfying to pro-choicers—Kaye’s desire for level-headedness puts him in the latter’s camp. Beginning with a quick point-counterpoint summation of both sides’ stances and then segueing into examinations of news and human-interest stories as well as the complicated philosophical questions they beget, Kaye uses deft juxtapositions in presenting a battleground where logical, inquiring liberal thought clashes at every turn with rigid Christian fundamentalism. Outside one of many clinics where sidewalk skirmishes between activists have become commonplace, the director discovers a pro-life man who sincerely argues that capital punishment should be doled out to not only abortionists, but also to anyone who dares blaspheme. At a home for unwed pregnant mothers, he unearths Father Westin, who spits and screams about satanic doctors’ everyday practice of barbequing fetuses. And in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he talks with Paul Hill, who after months of blatant murderous threats, walked his walk and murdered an abortion physician.
“We are right, they are wrong as we cling to the word of God,” claims a religious leader, an attitude that, as many others compellingly assert, extends beyond simply the abortion issue. Through interviews with narrow-minded ideologues like Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, Lake of Fire reveals the implicit goals of a pro-life agenda: to subjugate women, and, more fundamentally, to remove people’s right to choose how they wish to live their lives. That racism, sexism, and homophobia frequently underscore anti-abortion protestors’ contentions is succinctly summed up by Terry’s claim that “Intolerance is a beautiful thing.” And thus, after assessing the pro-life movement as intolerant, fanatical, and hypocritical—an appraisal that also winds up touching upon the original “Roe,” Norma McCorvey, whose guilt over her legacy led her to campaign against abortion at Pat Buchanan-attended functions—Kaye largely removes it from his film’s equation, directing the majority of attention to more even-tempered ethical and practical discussions about his topic.
This includes confrontation of difficult-to-stomach realities about the procedure itself. Three separate abortions are graphically—though dispassionately—depicted in Lake of Fire, providing gruesome, incontrovertible images to complement the film’s deliberations about morality. Kaye wields this footage not for the purposes of condemnation, but merely in the service of laying every card out on the table, as if to say: these are the specifics we’re dealing with, and sugarcoating or sidestepping them serves no purpose. When human life biologically commences, and when a culture might find the killing of a human perfectly reasonable, are matters—thrashed out by talking-heads like Alan Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky, and many others—that freely intermingle with analysis of clinic and 1996 Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, as well as testimonies from victims of pro-life violence. Woven together, they form a tapestry of tense conflict and ethical conundrums. And, as cemented by a shrewdly crafted final chapter that focuses on a single woman’s experience at a clinic, they also paint a cogent, profound portrait of abortion as a decision that, while informed by passionate beliefs, ultimately stands as the byproduct of life’s complex, crucial, and highly personal experiences.