While Dawn Porter has worked on a number of different types of projects since leaving her first career as a lawyer to pursue filmmaking, it could be argued she’s redfined how to practice the law in bringing to light situations that abuse it, specifically in the American South where stories of the underprivileged might otherwise go unreported if not for her camera. Her latest, “Trapped” actually came about in the midst of making her last, “Spies of Mississippi,” a film about a covert effort to thwart the civil rights movement that was funded by the state during the 1960s, when she discovered some current legislation nearly as arcane and just as destructive and systematic, known as “targeted regulation of abortion providers,” or “TRAP” laws, that had left Mississippi with just one clinic to attend to women in need.
Porter quickly learned that Mississippi was hardly alone in this regard and quickly dropped what she was doing to meet the staff of Jackson’s Women Health, including Dr. Willie Parker, a physician who traveled between many of the few remaining clinics throughout the South since so many have been discouraged to perform the procedure. Over the next three years, Porter would follow Parker and come to know the brave owners and employees of such clinics such as June Ayers, Gloria Gray and Dalton Johnson, particularly in Alabama where they are under relentless attack by the protesters outside their doors and in the state government where few make secret of their plans to do anything they can to restrict access to reproductive health services, including judges. Although Porter focuses on women’s clinics, it’s chilling the number of larger issues “Trapped” touches upon, whether it’s access to decent health care and the growing autonomy of state legislatures, exemplified this week when Alabama denied Birmingham’s bid to set a minimum wage, demonstrating flagrant disregard for federal and local laws.
After winning a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for social impact filmmaking, “Trapped”‘s release this week coincides with the Supreme Court hearing the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which could all but invalidate Roe v. Wade by affirming TRAP laws and turning over jurisdiction over reproductive rights to the states. Shortly before the film begins to roll out around the country, Porter spoke about how she was drawn to the issue, making a film about such sensitive subject matter, and what it was like to see Parker, Ayers and Johnson among others see themselves onscreen in Park City.
I’ve always been a pro-choice person, but I really didn’t know what was happening with abortion access in America until I was down in Mississippi, working on another film, and I read there was only one clinic in the whole state. In the era of Roe v. Wade protecting a woman’s right to choose, I didn’t understand why there would only be one, so I just got really interested in how that came about. What I found was there were all these states passing laws that clinics could not comply with and that clinics were closing across America.
Was it intimidating at the start to figure out how you could visually portray this subject matter?
I had never had an abortion or been in a clinic ever, so just the act of walking in and trying to wrap your mind around something that’s so private…[was difficult]. In a documentary, you follow your curiosity and your ability. One thing I really wanted to make clear was how warm and safe it is inside the clinic. When you are not a person who’s ever been in a clinic, you only hear about it usually through anti-choice people saying terrible things like “it’s a death mill.” When I was there, the nurses and doctors just worked so hard to make the women feel safe and they recognize and understand how emotional the women can be, so I really wanted to just show how normal the people are and how professional and brave they are.
Dr. Parker was very comfortable being filmed. Then slowly, some women agreed to speak on camera or to let us film him speaking with them, and once the [other] clinic owners agreed to be filmed, it was a lot easier to open up the story and show these are people who are doing something that a lot of people need, it’s very difficult, they’re doing it at great personal cost and what it feels like to operate in a state that’s trying to close you down at every turn.
Legally, this seems so clearly articulated, as “Gideon’s Army” was. Does your legal background actually influence how you go about making movies?
It definitely does. I was trained as a litigator, and the job of a litigator is to tell a story. We do it through writing briefs and legal arguments, but you basically take a complex set of facts and make it understandable and persuasive. So there’s two things in that: I’m very interested in letting people tell their own stories and I’m also interested in not overstating a case and letting you make up your own mind.
I’m also a good listener. If you do interviews, you become a good listener, and that experience I have helps me relax with people, and then I think they give better interviews. I don’t use notes with them. I just focus with them so it becomes a conversation. I’m really proud of that, and I try not to have things look too constructed because I think a lot is revealed by how someone sits or they’re holding their hands. We live in a very fast society, and when people have time to think through what they want to say, you get closer to how they really feel, and one of the things I love about nonfiction is helping people who might not come in contact with each other have the experience of others.
When you say you don’t want to overstate your case, there is a way that’s particularly crucial to “Trapped” since it encompasses so many larger issues whether it’s the American health care system as a whole or the growing power of state legislatures over laws that should be the realm of the federal government. Was it easy to keep your focus?
It was a balance, but it challenging because I wanted to make sure that we were showing the heart of their opposition and [few people from the other side] were willing to give interviews. One thing that helped was one of our producers grew up in an Evangelical household, and she was [someone] we’d check with, because even if I disagree with somebody, I don’t think it’s attractive when people make fun of people.
There was a lot we held back on. Some of the [pro-life] protesters are really difficult and say horrific things, so we actually tried to limit some of that and only have it where it was necessary to the scene. I felt the [pro-life] Operation Rescue Rally was really important to show because the person that we featured is the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He is charged with enforcing the laws that are passed in Alabama, and if that justice is addressing that group in that way, that felt editorially relevant. But I really wanted to focus on telling from the perspective of a provider trying to exist in this environment and that set some limits to the story because it’s their experience and their frustrations. You can stay away from some editorializing if you’re trying to look at things through their eyes.
At Sundance, I noticed that you had June Ayers, Gloria Gray, Dalton Johnson and Dr. Willie Parker there. What was that moment like, being able to bring out the physicians and, in general, putting a face on this?
When you’re making a film, the subjects often have no idea what it’s going to be like to reveal their story to an audience. I knew how I felt about them, and I suspected that audiences would respond really positively to them, but to see their faces when every single audience that they appeared in front of gave them a standing ovation, it just made all of the other difficulties in filming and putting this together worth it. They do not get a lot of positive feedback, and they know that they have supporters, but there [at Sundance], they saw it such a beautiful way. It was magical, and it made me a little teary.
They also don’t have vacations a lot. They’re constantly in the clinics, so when they got that standing ovation on the first day, it was incredible, and then over the next several days, they did a little sightseeing. They went snowmobiling, and then they had this positive interaction. I know they all said they went home feeling stronger, like they could put up with more – and they have a lot to put up with. The Alabama legislature is scheduled to reintroduce the bill that would make [it illegal for] Dalton’s clinic to be within a certain [amount of] feet of a school. While we were at Sundance, the Health Department scheduled an unscheduled inspection of Gloria’s clinic, where they stayed for two days reviewing all of her paperwork while she was out of town. The demands on them have not stopped at all.
“Trapped” opens on March 4th in Los Angeles at the Landmark, New York at the IFC Center and Washington DC at the Landmark E Street Theater before expanding across the country. A full schedule of dates and cities is here.