Tracy Droz Tragos on Getting Resourceful with the Abortion Access Doc “Plan C”

Tracy Droz Tragos had been more prepared than most for the repeal of Roe V. Wade, giving authority back to individual states to determine a woman’s right to choose after being thought to be settled under federal purview, after making “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” in which the filmmaker came to understand how difficult the process was even when it was the law of the land. However, a shift in power on the Supreme Court and increasingly draconian measures in red states where it has become impossible for clinics to remain open led Tragos to revisit the subject, having her fate dictated by the courts as much as her subjects when awaiting the final shoe to drop.

“I happened to be dropping my kid off at summer camp in the car with my kid,” Tragos said when she first learned of the decision in Dobbs v. Jason Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe. “And I remember [he] said, ‘I’m sorry, mom,’ because he knew I’d been making this movie. And I said, ‘I know,’ and I wasn’t there with a camera, but I immediately called people who called people and I was filming the next day.”

Tragos hit the road and eventually filmed in 14 states for “Plan C,” but captures a different kind of ground game than mere geography allows for in the energizing doc which takes the disappointment of the Dobbs decision in stride as it presents the inspiring work of the organization the film borrows its title from, providing women with access to information about how to have a safe abortion and in an age where prescription medication such as mifepristone and misopristone can be obtained from abroad, connecting drugmakers and physicians with women in need across borders. Co-founded by Francine Coeytaux, Amy Merrill and Elisa Wells, the organization finds itself not only more in demand than ever when Tragos starts filming due to the increased regulations around the U.S., but also at a time when Plan C had to work around the pandemic, in some ways make it easier to disseminate information and medication when the FDA relaxed rules regarding mail orders, but also more trying as more unplanned pregnancies and higher levels of spousal abuse was reported when people were in lockdown.

Tragos, who sensitively depicted the emotional toll of overcoming the obstacles to obtaining and ultimately having an abortion in her previous film, shows similar discretion here, often having to blur faces and abbreviate names to protect the people she’s filming from potential attack, but revealing an underground network of women helping one another when the system has failed them, showing both ingenuity and power in numbers when sharing resources. When “Plan C” shows both compassion and comprehension of the massive issues that women face when it comes to reproductive care, it becomes a strong resource in its own right as well as an encouraging profile in courage of those stepping up to the challenge of the present moment. On the eve of a nationwide theatrical run starting this Friday, Tragos spoke about criss-crossing the country to tell the story of an issue that affects millions, embracing the creative challenges of a project where many have to express themselves anonymously and the hope she’s already started to take away from getting the movie out to the public.

Did you think you’d be making another movie about this subject?

No, I never thought I would. And frankly, I was almost a little worried that if I only made films about abortion, that I would never be able to make a film about anything else. But this felt so important to me. Once I met the people in the network fighting to expand access to abortion medication, I just felt this was such a different story from what I did for HBO and I was so inspired that despite increasing restrictions – and this was all before Roe fell – the work of this network was ongoing. So I felt like I had this incredible secret almost that most people I spoke with didn’t know about and [I thought] I’ve got to do what I can to spread the word.

It’s the most journalistic film that I feel like I’ve made because the story was unfolding and in that way, I also felt like I have to document this. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what it’s like in Oklahoma when all the clinics have to close or abortion is suddenly outlawed. I don’t know how this network is going to react to SB8, but it became a chronology following my journey, starting in 2019 with my first meeting with Francine Coeytaux through the fall of Roe and the organizing that was happening despite abortion being outlawed in so many places.

On “Abortion: Stories Women Tell,” you had already figured out a style that could be sensitive to all the concerns involved. I did that make it easier or more tricky to decide on how to shoot this film?

Figuring out how to shoot this film was tricky, but I also knew the importance of including people who maybe couldn’t show their faces, but whose stories were incredibly important. That’s when it became, “Yes, we’re going to blur you and we’ll disguise your voice, but nonetheless, we’re going to include you.” And that’s the stakes that we have right now, where many folks are not safe from criminalization and the blurring of these faces became a visual element of the story. We decided during the edit, we’re not going to make it pretty, we’re going to make it big and chunky and obvious that we’re having to do this in the United States of America – blur doctors’ faces who are providing what should be legal care in many parts of the country that have deemed it a crime.

There are, however, some elegant ways you get around the issue of anonymity, such as when you’re able to present women’s voices over scenes of the places they’re presumably in which they cannot make themselves known publicly. How did you figure that out?

For “Abortion: Stories Women Tell,” it was such a specific place that had universal tones. But with this, we were going so many places around the country, and they are these urban and rural circumstances [where] so many people are trying to access care during the pandemic and coming up against walls. Then [they’d] find the solution to order pills through the mail and were willing to speak about it, but they were all over the country – and that wasn’t just [and issue] in the edit. We had to go out and make sure that we were filming places that wouldn’t reveal people’s identity, but still demonstrated this is [happening] all over the country and these are all the people who have needed this option, so that maybe for audiences, there would be some amount of hope. They might see themselves in either hearing the voice or seeing the location and knowing that these are people everywhere who need this option and are finding these pills online.

Was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Once the leak [of the Dobbs decision] happened, which was before the Supreme Court ruled, it became clear to me that I needed to film through the Dobbs decision and then work as quickly as I could in the edit to get this film out there because the work [of Plan C] continues, an amazing group of providers who are continuing to make sure that abortion medication is available no matter where you live in the United States. And the stakes are not getting any lower, but they’re not stopping their work. So there’s a real temptation to keep filming as this work is ongoing, but with how much we had already been able to capture, I felt like we had enough to share it with audiences and that they’d be taken on this journey that Francine and many people in the network went on during the past four years, and that they’d also have enough faith to learn more about what’s happening right now and that this option still exists.

You’ve been savvy about doing this independently, from production through release. Has it been interesting to take this through the grassroots approach of what Plan C is doing?

I was just on [a call] with Francine actually before talking to you, and she and I were shaking our heads about the parallels of the work of the grassroots network that the film is about and the release of the film itself. It’s very much an independent endeavor and I’m working with an independent distributor and we’re trying to spread the word, but we don’t have the marketing dollars of a studio. I’m so impressed with what our, what our indie distributor Level 33 has been able to do to get it in theaters, but it’s all very much grassroots, word of mouth, and in support of each other, but it’s not easy. I’m a little bit bleary-eyed and we hope that allies and organizations around the country who have responded to this film during its festival run, will also link arms with us to help get the word out so that more people can see it.

When I imagine you’ve been able to share the film already with women who may have believed they’re alone in their struggle, what has it been like getting this out into the world?

The response has been incredible, especially frankly in red states – screening in Texas and in Utah – where people of different ages have come up to me and [parents] say, “I’m so appreciative and I’m going to get pills in advance for my kid who I’m sending off to college,” but also students. There was a high schooler in Salt Lake City that came up to me and said, “Nobody talks about this. And it’s terrifying.” There are pregnant kids right now in high school who didn’t want to be pregnant and didn’t want to have their lives forever changed, and this high schooler said, “I’m going to take it upon myself,” and took a big handful of stickers that we often have at the screenings and said, I’m going to plaster the school with them and share it with all my friends.” So I’m happy that we can be part of that information sharing.

But what people have also said is that they’re inspired that this film is about regular people who aren’t waiting for lawmakers, so there is hope in this idea that regular people can make change right now, even if the laws and the political climate is so intense. Something can be done right now. There’s an option that exists and there’s advocacy to be done, and I’m hoping that this film will just be a part of a thunderclap of sharing information and optimism with folks, if they can know about it and will come see it.

“Plan C” opens on October 6th nationwide. A full list of theaters and cities is here.

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