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Courting Controversy at 12th and Delaware

Courting Controversy at 12th and Delaware

Articles - Cinematography

Documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are no strangers to controversy. Their Oscar-nominated breakout doc, 2006’s Jesus Camp, followed several young children at a summer camp intended to convert them into evangelical Christians. Their latest film, 12th and Delaware, revolves around a similarly hot-button issue—abortion. The title comes from the intersection of Delaware Avenue and 12th Street in Fort Pierce, Florida. On one side of the street sits A Women’s World, an abortion clinic. Across from it stands the Pregnancy Care Center, a pro-life organization, often mistaken for the clinic it desperately wants to shut down, and whose sole objective is to persuade women considering an abortion to continue with the pregnancy.

Two years in the making, the film plants viewers in the midst of this messy ideological battle. The film focuses on a single street corner, where pregnant women come every day having to face the pro-life volunteers who tote anti-abortion slogans and pictures of bloody fetuses, as, across the street, the staff of the abortion clinic fears for their doctors’ lives, and strongly support their clients’ right to choose. Ewing and Grady offer a compelling, well-rounded portrait of the abortion issue, offering insights from both sides. 12th & Delaware premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, and will make its nationwide debut August 2 on HBO.

MM recently caught up with Ewing and Grady to discuss their latest controversial doc.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): With Jesus Camp and now 12th and Delaware, religion—or topics that often come back to religion—seem to hold particular interest for you. Why is that? Why do you think you’re drawn to such provocative, hotly debated topics?

Heidi Ewing (HE): We actually don’t see this film as one about religion. This is a film about women who are in the moment of choosing whether to have an abortion or continue with their pregnancy. The film is about those forces that are attempting to influence that decision and the tactics these parties employ to that end. The film is about the stigma to abortion that seems to have gotten more pronounced in the last few years. In terms of choosing provocative subject matter, I guess we just can’t stay away from it! Extreme situations interest us. People with absolutist views intrigue us. But, it gets intense. We really need to make a comedy next.

MM: When did you decide to make a documentary on the abortion issue? What were some of your biggest concerns—considering the topic—before you began?

Rachel Grady (RG): The idea for the film came out of a conversation we had during a meeting at HBO with Sheila Nevins and Sara Bernstein. We were chatting with them about Jesus Camp and the fact that we had run across these mysterious clinics called Crisis Pregnancy Centers during the making of that film. Sheila thought it would make great film and so we embarked on a long journey. We were aware that taking on abortion was definitely a minefield and we were determined to avoid clichés and falling into a film where two sides of “The Issue” are screaming at one another, which is how the abortion debate is portrayed on almost every television network. We did not want to make a film about “The Topic,” but about the nameless, faceless women who every day have to make a tough decision. They somehow always get lost in the shuffle.

MM: Why did you decide to focus on the intersection of Delaware Avenue and 12th Street in Fort Pierce, Florida? How do you prepare for the unexpected when shooting at a location like this—especially considering the danger that could arise?

HE: We contacted multiple crisis pregnancy centers. Most of them were unwilling to allow a camera inside. The location in Fort Pierce was excellent (and extraordinarily cinematic), not only because we were allowed unfettered access to it, but also because it was directly across the street from their nemesis, the abortion clinic. This set the stage for dramatic encounters; we just had to wait around long enough for those to unfold. We just had to keep on our toes, as there was no way to control or predict any situation that could arise. This was unnerving at times but we hope it resulted in an interesting experience for our audience.

MM: How did the shooting location play into your equipment choices? What cameras, etc. did you settle on and why?

RG: All the action happened on that one corner, which provided what we came to see as “beautiful limitations” in the sense that we were able to really study the corner with our camera. We chose to use the SONY EX-1 that for now works best for us. The camera is small enough, not too intimate, but provides an excellent image (the jury’s still out on Canon 5-D for real verite shooting). We tried to stand back and use as much long lens material as possible, so as not to interrupt the proceedings and natural flow of the action. We also like the slo-mo function in the camera, which we put to use sparingly but it really lent itself to the environment.

MM: When dealing with such a highly controversial topic, how do you go about presenting the information fairly—giving each side a voice and preventing your own opinions from seeping into the content? Or do you think it’s okay for a documentarian to make his/her standpoint on a topic known (a la Michael Moore)?

HE: We think there is room for all sorts of storytellers, from Frederick Wiseman to Michael Moore. We aspire to tell our stories in a fair and non-judgmental way, as it’s personally extremely challenging and forces us into emotional and intellectual places we haven’t gone before, as well as challenges the viewer. We believe that being balanced (especially in very tense and fraught territory like abortion) makes an audience work harder, learn more and remember the experience we offer longer. That said, it’s not easy, it’s more time consuming and it takes a team (both directors and an editor) of people who are all willing to go in this direction.

MM: Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from the film? Do you hope to change people’s opinions on the pro-choice/pro-life debate?

RG: We don’t think this film will change people’s personal position on the abortion issue, but it will certainly help to illuminate the landscape of the debate, which seemed to us to be a bit stale and picked over. We think that people have a “seen it, done it” type of outlook on the issue, and making this film taught us so much about the fascinating and effective nuance of this cultural battle, and we sincerely hope those lessons transcends to an audience.

MM: What’s up next for you guys?

HE: We are currently making a film about the future of Detroit, called Detroit Hustles Harder. We are also developing a new film for HBO, but it’s top secret for now!

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