Two New York filmmakers who are bringing their documentary “After Tiller” to Wichita next month hope the film will spark civil discourse, not controversy, in a community that’s played a starring role for years in the nation’s debate over abortion.
Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, co-directors and co-producers, premiered the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It focuses on four doctors who were colleagues of Wichita physician George Tiller and who continue to offer late abortions. Tiller was murdered in 2009 while at church by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder.
Wilson said she wanted to explore not the politics of abortion but the doctors who provide them and their relationships with the patients who get them.
“The idea came in 2009 from watching the coverage of Dr. Tiller’s death on the news,” Wilson said. “My curiosity was just piqued. I didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t know anything about third-trimester abortion.”
That Tiller was shot and killed in church shocked Wilson.
“I was surprised that he was a religious Christian,” she said. “I was surprised to find out he had been shot earlier and went back to work the next day. Who would do that? Who would go back to work after they were shot? What would motivate someone to do this work and why?”
Wilson wanted, she said, “to be a fly on the wall in their lives.”
She teamed up with Shane and approached the four remaining U.S. doctors who provide late abortions. They are Warren Hern, a friend of Tiller’s who practices in Boulder, Colo.; LeRoy Carhart, who considered coming to Wichita after Tiller’s death and now provides abortion services in Maryland; and Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella, who run a clinic in New Mexico.
“The whole goal is to not do that screaming match between sides. The whole goal is to bring in the camera and just observe and see what’s going on in the clinics,” Wilson said.
Abortion is often portrayed in black and white, Wilson said, but she learned that there’s a lot of gray area.
“The doctors and the patients … articulate that very well,” Wilson said.
The film opened Sept. 20 in New York. It will show Nov. 20 at the Orpheum in Wichita.
Wilson and Shane will be at the screening and talk to the audience after the film.
The film, Wilson said, has appealed to “people of different political and religious backgrounds. I think the film sets a good tone for conversation.”
Shane said Hern and Carhart agreed to work with the filmmakers pretty quickly.
“The two female doctors took about a year to become part of the film,” she said. “Dr. Tiller never did any press, and they had a close mentorship with him. I think they began to see that this would be a good way to get the patients’ stories out there.”
Reaction to the film has been what Wilson and Shane said they hoped for – thoughtful discussion.
It’s not a film, Shane said, where the audience walks out and wonders where they’ll go to dinner.
“They are thinking about it and wrestling about it and talking about it,” she said. “It’s meant to shed light on these doctors and patients in this very loud debate over abortion. No matter what people’s politics are, they find out this is so much more complicated than I realized. People are thinking more deeply about their point of view on the issue.”