Evenhanded doc on the pro-life movement sacrifices interest earned in the first half hour

Unborn in the USA

on June 15, 2007 by Annlee Ellingson
What began as an assignment to create a portrait of a person unknown to the filmmakers for a college documentary course has expanded into a profile of the powerful anti-abortion movement in the United States. Claiming no affiliation with either side of the debate, Stephen Fell and Will Thompson, who refused funding that could have influenced the documentary's point of view, successfully maintain an even hand, inserting neither themselves nor a narrative voice into the film and supplying contextual information on nondescript title cards that only occasionally directly contradict the claims made onscreen. Less consistent over the course of the film, however, is the viewer's engagement with the material.

The first 30 minutes or so of Unborn in the USA center on a Focus on the Family-funded training camp for college-age activists. Young men and women are armed with information and lines of questioning that move away from off-putting lectures and condescension. Still, when the students arrive at Colorado State University and install an 18-foot, three-sided billboard depicting grotesque results of abortion, the tension is palpable. To their own skeptical students who question such methods, the instructors liken the use of such graphic imagery to Christ's crucifixion. (Going a bit over the top, the filmmakers juxtapose the raising of the cross from Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ with the hoisting of the activists' signage.)

Subsequent sequences, however, grow less engaging as the confrontational methods of those portrayed escalate, from abortion clinic bombers and doctor killers to protestors who line city streets with graphic blown-up photos of aborted fetuses. Interestingly, Fell and Thompson are essentially moving back in time as well, talking about strategies from the past, which results in more talking heads and archival footage than the verite filmmaking that was so effective in the first segment.

(On a side note, although pro-choicers would argue that the topic is a women's issue, that the interview subjects here are overwhelmingly male could mean littleā€”it could be a product of the fact that the majority of leaders in the movement are men, or that the majority of leaders in general are men, or that the (male) filmmakers, simply by virtue of their sex, were more successful at securing interviews with other men.)

The pro-life training camp featured at the beginning of the film humanizes pro-life activists, largely because they are humanizing pro-choicers, but in the end Unborn in the USA likely won't change the mind of members of either camp but rather, especially due to the latter parts, incite already-instilled emotion. But then, it's not meant to.
Distributor: First Run
Directors: Stephen Fell and Will Thompson
Producer: Suzanne O'Malley
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 101 min.
Release date: June 15, 2007 NY
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