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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: 12th & Delaware

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: 12th & Delaware

12th & Delaware takes place almost entirely within—or just outside—two innocuous-looking one-story buildings on the sunny Florida street corner of the title. One is an abortion clinic and the other is a “pregnancy center” run by Christian foes of abortion, put there to confuse and divert the women who come to the clinic for abortions. Cutting back and forth between the two, this knockout documentary anatomizes anti-abortion zealots’ relentless fight to end abortion by any means necessary.

It starts inside what turns out to be the anti-abortion storefront, though it takes a while to figure that out, putting us in the same position as the mostly young women who wind up there. We stay long enough to get a clear picture of what goes on there, following Ann, the thin-lipped director, as she “counsels” a few women, talks to her staff, and discusses her work. Ann’s main tools are the free ultrasounds she gives every woman who comes in and the miniature plastic baby dolls she shows them, claiming that they look like their fetuses. She also leaves them alone in the waiting room long enough so they can read the literature there, which is full of frightening misinformation about abortions.

Across the street, protesters stand outside the clinic whenever it’s open, holding posters of bloody fetuses (and traumatizing the kids at the grade school down the street, as the mother of one tries to tell them) and trying to dissuade patients as they go in. They also harass Arnold, the man who picks up and drops off the doctors who will work there, bringing them in with sheets over their heads so they can’t be identified and picketed at their own homes—or worse.

By the time we go inside the clinic, we don’t need to be told why Candace, Arnold’s wife and the clinic’s director, is eying the protesters nervously through burglar bars and half-closed blinds. In a visual manifestation of that unease, the filmmakers sometimes show the protesters as seen by the surveillance cameras the abortion clinic installed as one of its safety measures, but this movie’s power comes from its content, not its mostly undistinguished format.

Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, Freakonomics) switch back and forth between the two camps, penetrating equally deeply into both. We hear from Ann, who sees the abortion clinic as a business whose owners just want to make money by killing babies, and muses, “The evil is just so powerful…but it will end. I know that. I just don’t think it’s going to be pretty.” We hear from Father Tom, the minister who inspires her, whose innocuous manner belies his fiery preaching. “There’s got to be demons involved” in abortion, he says, calling the people who support a woman’s right to choose “diabolical” and part of “the powers of darkness.” We even get in the car with an angry anti-abortionist as he follows Arnold to his pickup spot and identifies the license plate of one of the doctors, crowing about how he’ll pass on the doctor’s name and address to people who will know what to do with it.

The filmmakers also film several women as they are counseled in the pregnancy center, following some outside to get their perspective. One, who seems as sure of herself as Ann is, takes a break from her attempted indoctrination to tell a friend: “This bitch is getting on my final nerve. If I have the baby, she’s not going to get up in the middle of the night and make a bottle.” Another, convinced to forego her abortion at the beginning of the movie, talks to the filmmakers later at home, when she is seven months pregnant. Staring wistfully out a window, she talks about the home remedies she tried to end her pregnancy, scared by Ann’s spiel about the dangers of legal abortion.

Meanwhile, inside the abortion clinic, Candace talks about the women she counsels, comforting them with a grandmotherly concern and repeating her mantra about wanting to make sure that “this is what you need to do. Not want to do. Nobody ever wants to do this.” She goes through clippings about doctors who were murdered by anti-abortion activists. And she talks about the fire that was set in her office a few months earlier and the guns and bulletproof vests her doctors all carry to protect themselves. “I just want to cry,” she says. “I want to go over there and shake those people. What are you doing? Why are you messing up these girls’ lives? Why are you playing around with them like that?”

There’s no need for a voiceover, though title cards add context now and then, telling us things like the fact that there are 4,000 pregnancy centers in the U.S. and only 816 abortion clinics. But mostly we just listen, to people on both sides of the divide and to women who are caught in the middle.

A report from inside a powerful campaign of domestic terrorism that may already have won, 12th & Delaware is a real-life horror story. “It was gruesome,” says one young woman after her talk with Ann, as she sits in her car with the friend or sister who accompanied her. “It was like watching a scary movie.”

You said it, sister.

12th & Delaware will play on June 11 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.