SIFF Interviews Jan Haaken, Director of Our Bodies, Our Doctors

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Our Bodies Our Doctors

After decades of legal restrictions, Roe v Wade suffered a lethal blow on June 24, 2022. By a 6-3 majority, the US Supreme Court overturned the 49-year-old law that established the constitutional right to abortion.

SIFF will host a screening of Our Bodies, Our Doctors, winner of the Lena Sharpe Award for Persistence of Vision at the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival, on August 14, 2022 at the SIFF Cinema Uptown, followed by a panel discussion with Director Jan Haaken, Assistant Director Samantha Praus and Drs. Deborah Oyer and Sarah Prager.

Ahead of the screening, SIFF sat down with Our Bodies, Our Doctors director Jan Haaken to discuss the ruling’s impacts in clinics across the country, and how she thinks we can learn from history.

Your work has spanned the areas of psychoanalysis and feminism, the history of psychiatric diagnosis, and the dynamics of social change. Can you tell us what drew you to telling this story?

I’ve been producing documentaries for over 2 decades which grew out of my field research. As an activist as well as an academic, I’ve always been interested in films and documentary methods as a form of education, but also as a way of creating a vivid, fuller picture of worlds that are charged or sometimes even controversial. I’ve always gravitated towards areas that tend to be polarizing or over-simplified, where people bring certain anxieties and preconceived notions.

I like to carry a democratic ethos into all of my projects, particularly bringing a different kind of lens than what people are familiar with. With this project, I had been invited to meet with academics at the University of Michigan to use documentary as a form of pulling back the curtain on this aspect of healthcare. I thought the providers were so interesting, so wise and thoughtful and had been so demonized by the broader anti-abortion movement. I became more and more incensed by that. They’re in an area of healthcare where they don’t get paid much relative to other doctors, they take enormous risks, they walk the gauntlet when they go to work, they put up with so much shit in their own profession and yet they keep doing it. There’s a portrayal of them as somehow part of an “abortion industry”, as if they’re perpetrators or predators. I became very intent on telling a different story.

There are a lot of documentaries about women seeking abortions, but the people who get up every day and make a commitment to providing this care, their story had not been told as fully as it should. I just felt like they deserved a feature length film.

To expand upon what you were saying about documentaries, what role do you believe film, whether it be a documentary or fictionalized story, plays in issues that are widely affecting so many?

I don’t see myself as a propagandist, there are a lot of propagandist documentaries where pretty much every element of the film leads you towards a conclusion and you’re not really challenging the audience to grapple with complexity. I think that has been a mistake of the pro-choice movement, to not deal with some of the nuance and complexity of abortion as an issue and a basic right. Documentary is a forum to show so many sides of life and areas of care that we have complex feelings around. Getting into the emotional importance of this area of healthcare was forbidden for a long time and I thought that was a mistake. We are, to some extent, confronting that now.

To me, the aim of my work as a documentarian is to get people to think in a deeper, fuller way and have a broader language for understanding an issue that has been made a caricature, or devalued or dismissed on the other side. A deeper understanding of an issue is what sustains us over time, not placards or bumper sticker claims. It’s also a place to bring in more marginalized perspectives. We can expand the context and bring in more voices.

Have you been in contact with the women, doctors, or students featured in your film since the ruling was announced? From your perception, how is this community of providers supporting each other through this time?

Well even before the Supreme Court ruling and that leaked document I’ve been in contact with providers, invited to events on campuses and screening this film. This ruling wasn’t surprising to these people, it’s been a bit of death-by-a-thousand-cuts in terms of restrictions and legislative action have been chipping away at the rights to abortion for years.

The Trust Women clinics featured in the film are struggling to stay open and provide abortion services in Wichita and Oklahoma City, with legal challenges and trigger laws in both states. In Our Bodies, Our Doctors, a number of scenes draw out their creativity in both complying and subverting the ridiculous laws they have had to navigate for decades. In addition to feminist principles of care, these independent feminist clinics have a great deal to teach around practices of resistance and forms of care work.

Your film also tells the story of the women and activists who fought for and administered safe abortions prior to Roe v. Wade. How do you think history can inform us as we move into this post-Roe era?

I’ve thought about this quite a bit. I knew I wanted to include this history in the film, specifically the self-exams and menstrual extractions. I worked at the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Los Angeles in the 1970’s and there was discussion about the liklihood of Roe being overturned even then, just after it was passed. There’s always been interest in controlling the procedure itself; not relying on the state or the medical profession to be there for us. The early movements, including the Jane Movement and others, really informed how we look at these procedures and the importance of a collective-setting today.

In the feminist clinics it’s been about supporting each other, learning from each other, learning to be more comfortable with our bodies and the messy aspects of them. I’m hoping among the various tactics of fighting the right-wing is a broad based, reproductive justice focus. Acts of civil disobedience have been part of any movement that has brought us progress historically.

In a time that feels devastating to so many, what is giving you hope? How do you think hearing the stories of those involved in this fight can help give others hope?

History is full of surprises. I don’t think we could have predicted that in two weeks time the Supreme Court would throw out much of what makes life livable in this country and roll back so much of what we consider part of the modern world. But it’s important to remember history is not set in stone, it’s a struggle. On our side of the ledgers of history, there have been many hard times, defeats and rollbacks. But what I hope to do is share something of the joy and gratifying aspects of being involved in hard struggles. How can we confront the forces that intimidate us? Struggle can deepen you as a person, force you to learn how people have taken on hard things in the past and ask yourself, “what do we do now?”

SIFF has a Letterboxd list of films focusing on women’s rights in light of the recent ruling. Are there any movies you recommend on the subject of abortion that you have found especially impactful?

As a companion film, I would recommend The Janes, a documentary that tells the story of a group of women in Chicago in the late 60s and early 70s that organized an underground network to provide abortion services. It's bold and brash and the spirit we need for these times. Judith Arcana, one of the Janes, is also featured in Our Bodies, Our Doctors.

Our Bodies, Our Doctors will be screening August 14th at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Tickets on sale now.

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