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April 30, 2008
RATING: 9/10
It is difficult to know where to begin with a film like Lake of Fire. There is so much that takes place over the course of the film's 152 minute runtime that grasping onto one concept or scene risks trivializing others of equal import. So, to start, here is the basic premise: Director Tony Kaye (American History X), over the course of almost two decades, filmed both extremes of the abortion debate and everyone caught in the middle. He conducted intimate interviews, filmed both pro-choice and anti-abortion rallies, and even documented one woman's abortion - from her drive to the clinic, through the abortion procedure, and concluding with her walk back to the car. It is easily the most balanced and comprehensive (read: exhaustive) examination of the issue to date. Lake of Fire is also one of the most challenging documentaries for open-minded viewers because the rhetoric that surrounds and clouds the abortion debate, when shown through Tony Kaye's lens, is held up to intense scrutiny. Cutesy slogans of either political slant are no match for the undeniably real images of assassinated doctors and mangled fetuses haunting Lake of Fire. To be glib, the abortion debate is one from which no one gets out alive.

The thing about Lake of Fire that is the most striking, at least initially, is Kaye's decision to shoot the film in black and white - a visual nod to the polarized feelings about abortion. In the film's opening, what in color would be seen as a blue sky on a sunny day is instead muted by the shades of grey it becomes when rendered in B&W, and even more so by the massive Pro-Life billboard on display in the median of a South Dakota highway. The rest of the film maintains this tone - black & white shots of misogynistic Evangelical ministers crooning hymns at rallies are paired with graphic images of a second trimester abortion. Both scenes are equally cold and frightening. It is difficult to determine which is more horrifying, the cultish group of white men on stage, gleefully gesticulating their way through a series of apocalyptic talking points, or the strikingly large aborted fetus being washed and measured in a sterile metal tray.


Throughout the film Kaye remains non-judgmental, allowing each person in front of his camera to have his or her say, without bias. The racist Floridian preacher from whom the film takes its name speaks for a few minutes about what happens to the damned and the righteous when they die. When discussing "the Lake of Fire," his tone becomes almost orgasmic as he describes the damned being burned alive in lava for eternity. To him, heaven is wonderful because "Jesus is there." A young woman in the beginning of the film highlights the work that pro-choice groups are undertaking to reduce the number of abortions by increasing access to birth control. Norma McCorvey (a.k.a. Jane Roe) talks about her slow conversion to fundamentalist Christianity and her ensuing regret for helping to make abortion legal. It is most often in these intimate moments that the individuals reveal their true natures - wounded and broken people who chose to dedicate their lives to an issue of immense complexity.


The introduction of Paul Hill, an Evangelical minister who became a fixture in the national pro-life movement in the 1980s and 90s, sends Lake of Fire careening in a different direction. Hill and his fellow wild-eyed zealots spent their days screaming at women entering Florida clinics. They also began purchasing property adjacent to clinics and would publicly state their belief that women belonged in subservient roles and that those who blaspheme deserved to be executed for heresy. As the film progresses, Hill becomes more and more radicalized. He allied himself with a Florida anti-abortion group headed by a former Ku Klux Klan member and, in July of 1994, executed a physician providing abortions, and his clinical escort, with a shotgun. After showing the grisly crime scene photos, Kaye interviews a nurse who reveals that three of her former employers had been executed by pro-life radicals, who in turn are shown using bombs and guns, and manipulating mentally ill peons - often referred to as "soldiers" - to kill on behalf of the church. The collateral damage from these acts is stupefying. Hill's shotgun massacre also resulted in the severe wounding of the wife of one of the slain men. In one of Lake of Fire's most tragic scenes, a nurse from a bombed abortion clinic is interviewed about the day she went to work and was literally blown apart. Her face pockmarked from shrapnel, her eye missing, and unable to walk normally, she calmly discusses the hypocrisy of a group who kills and maims to make political points under the banner of "pro-life."


Kaye received sharp criticism from both sides of the abortion debate for his refusal to take a stand in Lake of Fire. Over the course of the film's exhausting 2.5 hours, there are so many arguments, battles, assaults and killings, that it becomes clear that taking a stand is pointless. Both sides of the debate are so locked into their doctrine that to give an inch is to cede the entire argument. Amidst all the screaming of slogans and bombed out buildings, Kaye reminds viewers that the abortion debate really boils down to a woman, her physician and her faith. The climax of the film begins with a woman waiting for a ride to a clinic. She is in the middle of the first trimester of pregnancy and seeking an abortion because she is not ready to have a child. Her tragic story, her strength, and her abortion are meticulously documented as she details her situation for a clinic nurse. Following the procedure, she seems initially strong and resolved that she made the right decision. Then, suddenly weeping uncontrollably, her face buried into her hands and clearly distraught, it becomes evident that nothing has been black and white for her. Nothing has been as easy as a slogan about "clusters of cells." Her life will be better because she was not yet ready to be a mother, but it is clear that choosing not to have her child was unimaginably difficult.

Lake of Fire is not an easy experience in any way. The subject, the images, most of the people involved and the omnipresent black & white cinematography all add to the film's rough atmosphere. Kaye, who has almost no role in the film, personally shot almost all of the footage and his camerawork is excellent. Lake of Fire would have been a travesty if it had been done in the ego-driven style of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock's "filmmaker as character" method. Fortunately, Tony Kaye removed himself from the film and his objectivity maintained its purity. Lake of Fire is a must-see for anyone who thinks the abortion debate is, well, black & white. It is also a must-see for anyone who thinks that the abortion debate, or procedure itself for that matter, is easy for anyone involved. Lake of Fire is a must-see.

SEE ALSO: www.thinkfilmcompany.com
SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/thinkfilm

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LASís editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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