LAKE OF FIRE

NYR
Reviews

Lake of Fire is, ostensibly, a documentary about abortion in America. Fifteen years in the making, it lives up to its promise of definitiveness, with absorbing interviews with religious extremists, progressives, and ordinary women making the difficult choice to abort. The title, which is derived from the Bible, suggests a bias, yet filmmaker Tony Kaye’s investigation into what underlies the debate belies that: Lake of Fire is a significant piece of journalism.

Kaye makes the case that the abortion debate, which intensified after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, is so much spin in the more sinister movement of religious fundamentalists to establish a theocracy in the United States. He illustrates how abortion, used as a political tool, mobilizes several types of extremists—evangelicals, white supremacists, misogynists and homophobes—to commit violent crimes. Given the present administration’s links to Christian fundamentalism, and its concomitant undermining of the Constitution, Lake of Fire could not be more timely or more frightening: If we Americans imagine that only in Third World countries are women’s bodies the battleground for ethnic and religious conflict, this documentary should give us pause.

The representatives of the lunatic fringe in Lake of Fire, which is composed almost entirely of white males, includes John Burt, formerly of the KKK. At the beginning of the film, Burt enumerates those destined to spend eternity in the “lake of fire”: non-Christians, “abortionists”—those who perform them and the women who have the medical procedure—and sodomists. Sodomy is strictly equated with homosexuality. Progressives include a philosophical Noam Chomsky, as well as Frances Kissling of Catholics for Free Choice, who lucidly explains the Roman Catholic Church’s rhetoric and how it has systematically dulled the moral barometer of its adherents. In a brilliant and deftly accomplished final segment, Kaye turns to one courageous young woman who allowed the writer-director to follow her into the clinic where she ends her pregnancy.

Kaye, who engaged in a bitter struggle with New Line over the final cut of American History X, has since mended fences in Hollywood, and is in production in New Orleans on Black Water Transit. The movie, which has Laurence Fishburne in a leading role, is Kaye’s first narrative feature in nearly a decade. No one has ever doubted Kaye’s talent, and while Lake of Fire is proof of the filmmaker’s virtuosity, it is also a demonstration of his cinematic brashness. The original music by Anne Dudley (Black Book) is Old Church, and it’s awful and dissonant, running counter to the investigative tone of the documentary. Kaye’s radiant black-and-white photography also seems out of place here—it’s as though he can’t stop showing off.

On the other hand, style is a minor complaint in a documentary that so skillfully delineates every imaginable political, philosophical and moral position on abortion. Even in what is sure to be Lake of Fire’s most controversial scene, where a doctor sifts through the body parts of an embryo after an abortion (a medical necessity), a journalistic purpose is served: to depict the extraordinary commitment of physicians and nurses who perform abortions. Kaye never flinches, and that is what gives the documentary its sense of fairness.

If you find yourself chuckling, like many in a New York City screening, at the first utterances by the extremists—who, though they want to protect women from the wages of sin, actually despise them—you won’t be laughing midway through when you learn that Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue buys properties adjacent to women’s clinics. They do that so they can hang hateful signs, and scream “Mommy, Mommy” at women entering clinics, all with limited interference from the police. One of Kaye’s subjects argues that since most of these demonstrators are men, there is a perverse sexual component to their activities. That’s sickening, but then you learn about Christian Reconstructionism from author Frederick Clarkson—the movement to establish a theocracy—and revulsion gives way to paranoia.

Kaye is tapping into an elemental fact of human nature in Lake of Fire: We’re fascinated by evil, and there is enough of it in the documentary to warrant the title. If there is a religious conspiracy in the United States using legal abortion as a flashpoint—all polls indicate a majority of us consider it a matter of personal choice—then Kaye’s final segment reminds us that national debates aside, women stand to suffer the most from fanaticism. Their “lake of fire” is in the here and now, in the fundamental loss of freedom that any restriction on legal abortion represents.