Sundance 2020 Interview: Janet Goldwater and Mike Attie on Answering the Call in “Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa”

In June of last year, Joe Biden was asked if he’d reconsider his stance on the Hyde Amendment, a law passed not long after the U.S. Supreme Court made their landmark ruling on a woman’s right to choose with Roe V. Wade, and the filmmakers Barbara Attie, Mike Attie and Janet Goldwater’s ears were burning.

“I think [Biden] might’ve been pushed on that in one of the early debates, so quickly a lot of the Democratic candidates felt the need to make a position on the Hyde Amendment,” says Goldwater. “And what that meant was that journalists and readers, or audiences all over the country were scratching their heads saying, ‘What exactly was the Hyde Amendment?’”

This was a question that the filmmakers had been already working towards answering for the American public well before it was brought up on the presidential campaign trail, and rather than simply creating an explainer for the law that has made it economically unfeasible for those who can’t afford health care in general to avoid going into further debt with another child when federal funding is blocked from being used for full reproductive care, the Atties and Goldwater spent time at the Women’s Medical Fund offices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to observe a call center that attempts to bridge the gap between what women in need can afford and the cost of getting a safe abortion.

In “Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa,” the process itself is fascinating to witness when all the operators are known as “Lisa,” providing a sensitive voice on the other end of the line for the pregnant women that call at their most vulnerable moment, but the film sheds light on how unfair the law is through the variety of callers with circumstances that unfortunately are likely pretty common nationally yet bear nuances that the Hyde Amendment doesn’t allow for, such as absentee fathers who leave before a baby can come to term or pregnancies projected to have fetal abnormalities. While the women who call will often admit they’re ashamed to be seeking out help, it becomes evident that the system has failed them when so many of the callers come from the same socioeconomic background, with the African-American community hit particularly hard. Still, the fact that there is a support system out there for people in such desperate straits proves revelatory.

With the film headed to Sundance this week, Mike Attie and Goldwater spoke about how they secured the access to make such an intimate film, how the film has already started to raise awareness around the Hyde Amendment and illustrating how what happens in the halls of Congress trickles down to everyday Americans. [UPDATE: The film is now available to watch on Vimeo.]

How did this come about?

Janet Goldwater: Barbara Attie and I have been making films together for a long time and we’ve done three or four different films about abortion rights. Mike is Barbara’s son, so he’s watched a lot of films that we made a lot along the way and he’s now teaching in the documentary program of University of the Arts, so in 2016, the three of us teamed up to make “Abortion Helpline.” It came about partly because of the [recent presidential] election. We felt some urgency to make something that we thought would speak to the political moment and address an aspect of abortion rights that we feel is somewhat unknown and neglected.

Given the need to protect the privacy of the callers, was this difficult to figure out logistically? How did you negotiate access?

Janet Goldwater: I have worked for the Women’s Medical Fund as a board member and a volunteer fundraiser for a long time, so there’s a lot of trust there, and the Fund was wonderfully receptive to this idea [when we presented it to them]. They happen to be the largest fund in the country, so it gave us a large field to look at.

Mike Attie: And in the early stages of the film, we weren’t even sure we were going to include the audio of the callers themselves. Pretty early on, we felt we could actually use a lot of the information that was on the screens and the operators themselves, but it became so apparent that the audio of those calls was really vital to the film, so we worked with a lawyer to draft a statement that could be read at the beginning of the call in which we would ask permission to explain what it was being used for and more than half of the people agreed during the production process being in the film. There was not that much resistance to it. Then after in the post-production process, we had to be sensitive to the information [because] there’s a lot you hear about these callers’ personal lives and we were trying to be very cognizant of what could be recognized or not or what would be too revealing about each of these callers while still maintaining a lot of the emotional content of the film.

How did you select what calls you wanted to include in the film?

Janet Goldwater: As you can imagine, it’s heartbreaking listening to the calls, so then it becomes equally heartbreaking to edit people out because they’ve shared their stories and then you feel some responsibility to them. But what we realized was as a short film, there’s not a huge amount of visual variety in it and as we winnowed it down and it became shorter, it did become more powerful. It was important to reflect to the extent that you can, what a true demographic is of people that need this kind of help. Generally, these are people that already have children, so we wanted that to be reflected, and it’s people that are in extremis. This is the phone call of last resort. These callers have already been given a discount by the abortion provider, so these are people who, even with the discount, just are not going to have $300-$400 at the end of the month or anybody to lend it to them, so we really wanted to highlight that. We also wanted to highlight the other factors in women’s lives that contribute to this – underemployment, low wages, domestic violence, and lack of partner support.

Was it always the plan to intersperse congressional debate of the Hyde Amendment or did that come later on in the process?

Mike Attie: That evolved as the film went. There’s always that iconic line that you get where [Henry Hyde] talks about, “If we can’t save the children of the rich, at least we can save the children of the poor,” which becomes one of the more memorable lines in the film. I think it’s pretty squirm-inducing personally, but later we found it interesting to bring in more contemporary hearings too and hear how this debate has evolved — or really not evolved over the years — because it feels like it’s very much of an issue right now.

Janet Goldwater: And it’s important to point out, we focused on women that are insured by Medicaid or [the] underinsured, but it also affects anyone who works in government, so it’s Peace Corps, Native Americans, people in the military. The Hyde Amendment actually affects a really broad range of individuals.

Mike Attie: Another thing is that [we wanted to] show the way this debate takes place in Washington, but how in a bigger sense these decisions that are being made actually do have a direct consequence on people’s lives. That juxtaposition is always so striking to go from a call back [at the Women’s Health Fund] to the hearings, to think about the bigger picture about how these decisions are being made by people who are really not connected to the issue in a sense.

Does anything happen along the way where you thought this would’ve been one film, but it became something else?

Janet Goldwater: Yeah, this is a world that Barbara and I have both been pretty engaged with for a long time, so there’s a lot of aspects of access to abortions – financial access to abortion, specifically – that we’re aware of. For instance, the first victim of the Hyde Amendment was Rosie Jimenez, a young woman who died within a month after the Hyde Amendment was passed because she got an illegal abortion that she couldn’t afford a safe one. So we toyed with giving that bigger story of the entire history of how the Hyde Amendment has played out and [how] other legislation which has affected women, but once we went into production, we realized that the narrow path was working in terms of impact.

I know Sundance is going to be a whole different thing, but what’s it been like traveling with the film so far?

Janet Goldwater: The festivals are amazing. We know that people that attend are often pretty civically engaged people and we love hearing people say, “I didn’t know that.” That’s exactly why we’re doing it. Sundance has just been a huge, exciting surprise, but the film is already starting to be used by grassroots groups for organizing. Our original plan was to scale this up for activist use and the abortion fund in Philadelphia has screened it in two different venues, raising all kinds of awareness, so we want to work with an impact team all over the country to make that happen all over the country. That would be a success for us.

“Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa” is now streaming on Topic here.

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