SUNDANCE: After Tiller (***)


AfterTiller_WarrenHernA moving, if one-sided documentary, After Tiller is an affecting look at the few doctors in the world providing third trimester abortions for women in the aftermath of the noted Dr. George Tiller being murdered in 2009. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson obviously care deeply about the right to choose, even in this extraordinarily controversial incarnation of the practice, and it shows. They’re not going to change the world with this doc and likely are preaching to the choir, but it’s a sermon that’s well worth hearing. Shane and Wilson put a human face on the practice by focusing on the doctors themselves as much as the issue, which gives the film an identity. Undoubtedly this will be an emotional documentary to sit through for some, and while I don’t see it being an awards contender, it’s a strong bit of cinema. As a side note, there was added security for the premiere due to the potential for some unpleasantness. That should let you know how strongly this issue gets to people.

A bit of history for those who don’t know: most doctors do not provide late-term abortions, even those who provide the service otherwise. The one most notable for doing it was Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered at church by an extremist in 2009. His death left only four doctors who do the job, and the documentary focuses in on them. Despite accounting for less than 1% of all the abortions done, it’s a practice that is heavily protested by the right to life crowd. No one gets the brunt of it more than Nebraska doctor by the name of LeRoy Carhart, who is constantly dealing with the threat of conservative politicians trying to pass laws to kick him out of town. At one point, Dr. Carhart is actually forced to move, eventually setting up his practice in a different state. In Colorado Dr. Warren Hern faces threats as well, while in New Mexico things are slightly calmer for Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley Sella, though the emotional toll is still pretty severe. We see their patients, we listen to their conversations, and we feel the pain all around.

AfterTillerMartha Shane and Lana Wilson don’t want to focus on the politics of the practice so much as the people who believe in its importance. Carhart, Hern, Robinson, and Sella all do this as a public service in their eyes and refuse to back down to political and sometimes social pressure. Shane and Wilson don’t give equal time to the other side at all, staying with these doctors the whole way through. While it gives the documentary a singular perspective, it does limit the potential for affecting anyone outside of the target audience. Those who oppose abortion won’t change their mind one bit, while those who support it will just dig their heels in deeper after watching the doc.

Overall, After Tiller is a worthwhile look at a part of the abortion debate rarely seen. This isn’t a top-tier documentary, but it’s still a good one that should find an audience upon release sometime in 2013. It will likely appeal more to liberals than conservatives, but it’s certainly not just propaganda or anything of the sort. Give it a look if you think you can handle it/when it becomes available.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!

  • Joey Magidson

    I haven’t seen as many documentaries at Sundance as I’d like, but this is one to keep an eye out for…

  • Sounds like a hard movie to watch at times?

    • Joey Magidson

      Very much so…