It would be a mistake to think that the three movies about abortion at this year’s Sundance—Call Jane, The Janes, and Happening—are about the past. True, all three of them take place in the 1960s and/or early ’70s. And two of them end on a celebratory note, as Roe V. Wade struck down anti-abortion laws in Texas and around the country in January 1973. But if you think that a woman’s right to choose is a settled question, then you haven’t been paying attention. S.B. 8, a new Texas law that makes obtaining a safe, legal abortion in the state all but impossible, is currently traveling through the federal appeals courts. And with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, Roe V. Wade’s chances of celebrating its 50th birthday are far from secure.
It’s more common that you might think for a series of films about the same topic to all coincidentally make their way onto the same festival program. In 2016, for example, four films about gun violence were featured at Sundance. And ambient anxiety over reproductive rights has been a constant since… well, as long as I can remember, but particularly since Donald Trump took office in January 2017. It takes a while for a film to go from an idea to a finished product, and the fact that all three of these films are hitting Sundance at the same time shows how pervasive fears about losing reproductive freedom have been in recent years. Sadly, this is one issue that doesn’t seem like it’ll fade from relevance any time soon.
Looking into the past, when whisper networks and septic abortion wards (i.e., wards for women dying of botched at-home abortions) were common, the facts always defy current misconceptions and stereotypes. For example, the fiction feature Call Jane and the documentary The Janes, about Chicago’s JANE collective, both feature clergy members involved in the movement to legalize abortion. The fact is, anti-abortion rhetoric was not a cornerstone of evangelical Christianity until the late ’70s: In 1971, 1974, and 1976, the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions supporting women’s right to choose. Catholics, meanwhile, have been anti-abortion practically since the church’s inception. But that didn’t stop activist nuns like Sister Mike, a fictionalized version of whom Aida Turturro plays in Call Jane, from joining the fight.
One has to be careful not to re-write history out of convenience. Directed by Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, Call Jane takes an approach too often adopted by films about activism that are trying to toe a centrist line: It inserts a “safe,” not-too-radical protagonist to assure some (presumed) comforting familiarity for the film’s (presumed) white, middle-class audience. Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall did this by adding a fresh-off-the-bus white Midwestern jock into an event that was actually led by trans women of color. And Call Jane does it through the character of Joy (Elizabeth Banks), a white upper-middle-class suburban housewife who connects with an underground network of women committed to providing safe abortions after being denied the life-saving procedure by an all-male hospital board.
Call Jane underlines the importance of not judging the women who passed through JANE’s doors over the years. But the movie undercuts that message by making sure the audience knows that Joy had her abortion because of a heart condition that would have killed her if she brought the pregnancy to term. And although we do meet other members of the collective—some based on real people, like Sigourney Weaver’s Virginia, an analogue for JANE founder Heather Booth—none of them get more than a few lines of dialogue filling in their lives and backgrounds. It’s a move that’s especially egregious when looking at the character of Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), JANE’s sole Black member, whose desire to better serve the impoverished Black women of Chicago is given only obligatory air time and a pat resolution.
In terms of narrative structure, Joy is a convenient contrivance. Call Jane does mean well. But in turning a story about a collective into a narrative about a nice white lady who showed some radical feminists how to really get things done, it shortchanges both its fictional story and the real-life inspiration for it. Inconsistent, sometimes sloppy direction from Nagy doesn’t help, either. Call Jane looks a lot like the feminist version of Trial Of The Chicago 7: an oversimplified take on a complicated chapter of history.
For a fuller picture of that history, viewers can turn to The Janes, a documentary that doesn’t do anything radical in terms of structure or storytelling, but at least acknowledges the multi-faceted nature of the story. I’ve seen quite a few nonfiction films that focus on the early days of second-wave feminism (the best of which, in my estimation, is She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, currently streaming on Tubi). The good ones always include details about how much women’s lives have changed within my mother’s lifetime that blow me away. Here, it was the fact that, in 1968, it was expected for a woman to quit her job if she got pregnant, and doctors would not write you a prescription for the Pill unless you were already married.
You can see how this confluence of factors would put a lot of young, unmarried women into desperate situations. There are some shocking moments in The Janes, as we see stock footage of women admitted to hospitals after an unsuccessful abortion: There’s so much blood, staining shift dresses and white gloves and the blankets that were wrapped around these poor souls when they arrived at the emergency room. Interviews with doctors and nurses who worked on septic abortion wards add valuable context, as do sections of the documentary outlining how women being sidelined in anti-war and civil rights movements directly led to radical ’60s feminism.
The Janes is also a Chicago story, full of very Chicago details. The accents are thick, and the impunity is real. It took four years for the Chicago police to bust JANE, which operated just under the surface by advertising in underground newspapers and on community bulletin boards. (“Pregnant? Worried? Call Jane,” the ads read.) Several interviewees speculate that the reason the CPD didn’t act was because their daughters and girlfriends were using the service, and one member says it never occurred to her that there might be actual consequences for her activism until she got arrested.
There’s a youthful naiveté to that, but also an element of white privilege—it’s probably not a coincidence that detectives started paying more attention to JANE after New York State legalized abortion, shifting the underground network’s clientele to mostly Black and Latina women on the South and West sides. The Janes does acknowledge these facts, however, and discusses them openly. The most affecting part of the documentary comes when surviving collective members pull out the notecards on which they recorded the personal information of the people who called the service. One by one, they read aloud the intimate details of these desperate pleas for help: “Father is a cop. Be careful,” one reads. “Afraid of pain,” reads another. One card just has a name, weeks pregnant, and the word “terrified.”
The cumulative effect of each of those note cards is devastating. But so is the intimate detail of the most powerful of Sundance’s three abortion stories this year: Audrey Diwan’s Happening, which is playing as part of the festival’s Spotlight program after winning the Golden Lion at Venice last fall. Set at a provincial French college circa 1963, Happening is based on Annie Ernaux’s memoir about her experience trying to get an abortion so she could continue her studies at the age of 23. Diwan turns Ernaux’s story into a film that’s full of intimate, autobiographical texture, plainly yet eloquently told.
Of these three films, Happening is the most unflinching in depicting the bodily reality of the situation. The most compelling sequence in Call Jane is a 10-minute scene that goes through most of the steps of a D&E (dilation and evacuation) procedure, but a white sheet covers the action, so to speak. In Happening, we get a similarly extended look at what actually happens when someone lays down for an abortion. But this time there’s no white sheet and no stirrups, just two strangers and some scary-looking tools. The scene isn’t quite gynecological in detail; Diwan pans up to star Anamaria Vartolomei’s face once the really painful part begins. Nevertheless, the actor’s agonized expressions make the point clearly.
That’s just one of several visceral, harrowing medical sequences in Happening. (Earlier in the film, Vartolomei’s Anne tries to self-induce with a knitting needle, as you can see in the still above.) These are hard to watch, but essential to understanding what Anne is going through. “I’ll manage,” she says, over and over, to those few friends she can trust with this very sensitive information. Society’s judgement of a girl like Anne in ’60s France was intense, so much so that even the subtle intimation of abortion is met with panicked whispers of, “We don’t talk about that.” Anne is alone, and afraid, and in pain. But she never wavers in her decision.
Happening isn’t afraid of the physical, but its depiction of the psychological effect the pregnancy has on Anne is equally affecting. She can’t concentrate. Her grades suffer. So do her friendships. If she doesn’t find a way to end this pregnancy, then her life as she knows it is over. And Happening keeps the viewer in suspense up until the end. “I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life,” Anne tells a confidant at one point.
Looking through that lens, it becomes overwhelming to think about all the lives that were saved by underground abortion providers like the members of JANE. And not just in the literal sense that these organizations helped women who might have died trying to perform the procedure themselves—also in the sense that they allowed women to keep living the lives they chose. Having a baby and a career was rarely an option back then, which meant that bearing a child set the course for the rest of a woman’s life. There are those who would like to return society to that place. Let these films, all directed by women, serve as a reminder of how much potential is lost when we see human beings as little more than incubators.