At Sundance, two films look at abortion and the Jane Collective

Judith Arcana was 27 and recently separated from her husband when she began surreptitiously driving women for safe – but illegal – abortions. It was 1970, she was an unemployed teacher in Chicago’s South End, and she spent her days counseling women in need.

“I don’t think we were crazy,” Arcana, now 78, said. “I don’t think we were stupid. I think we had found something so important, so useful in the lives of women and girls.

“We have become radicalized in the arena of women’s bodies,” she said. “We knew what we were doing was good work in the world. And we knew it was illegal.

Arcana was part of the Jane Collective, a disparate and rotating group of women who provided safe abortions to thousands of women in Chicago between 1968 and 1973. Despite the law, women still had abortions. But they often performed them on themselves and ended up in the hospital, or paid off the mob with no guarantee of survival.

During those years, because of Arcana and other women, if you lived in Chicago and needed help, you could call a number and talk to a woman who would offer you a safer alternative. The members of the collective provided advice and organized the proceedings, which they ultimately administered – 11,000 in total during this period. But then, in 1972, Arcana and six other members of the group were arrested, each charged with 11 counts of abortion or conspiracy to commit an abortion with a 10-year sentence for each charge. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision saved them all.

Now, nearly 50 years later, the members of the collective are sharing their stories in two films at the Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday: the HBO documentary “The Janes”; and a fictional account titled “Call Jane”, featuring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, and seeking distribution.

The films debut at a particularly crucial time for abortion rights. The Supreme Court heard arguments in December on the legality of a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks; he is expected to render a decision this summer. If the court upheld the law, the decision would contradict Roe v. Wade, who declared abortion a constitutional right and prohibited states from banning the procedure before fetal viability (23 weeks).

The Sundance filmmakers don’t hide their support for abortion rights, but say they want their work to show the complexity of the subject.

In ‘Call Jane,’ Banks plays Joy, a mother and housewife who seeks an illegal abortion after learning her pregnancy is life-threatening — her attempt to obtain one legally having been denied by a board of directors all-male hospital worker. The film’s director, Phyllis Nagy (whose credits include the script for “Carol”), said she wished she could show it to conservative Supreme Court justices. “I would sit there and say, ‘Now talk to me,’ and it probably wouldn’t make a difference,” she said. “But artists need to start having political conversations with society that aren’t didactic,” she added. “Nothing else worked.”

The creators of “The Janes” hope that those with different points of view will take a look at life before Roe v. Wade. “It’s a glimpse of history; I don’t think it’s an advocacy film,” said Tia Lessin, who directed with Emma Pildes, whose father was married to Arcana. Arcana’s son, Daniel, and Pildes are the film’s producers. Lessin added, “It’s a true story about what happened and about the efforts of women to have abortions and to enable other women to have abortions.”

“Does I hope the takeaway will be ‘let’s not go back’? Sure. But I really hope it gets people started in conversation. Love the movie, hate the movie,” a- she said before Pildes intervened: “Talk about the problem.

And there is plenty to discuss.

The Jane Collective was formed when student Heather Booth, now 76, received a desperate call from a friend who wanted an abortion. Booth, active in the civil rights movement, found a doctor willing to help and passed on the information. “I did what I thought was a unique arrangement,” she said in an interview. Soon another woman called. Then another. Booth found herself negotiating fees and learning the intricacies of the procedure so she could counsel women. After a few years, Booth, then a mother working on her graduate degree at the University of Chicago, recruited others to meet the growing need.

“I was working full time. The number of calls increased. It was definitely too much for one person,” she added.

Marie Leaner, now 80, was raised Roman Catholic and taught to believe abortion was a sin. At a community center on Chicago’s West Side, she ran a program for teenage mothers. “I just thought it was excruciating that these women didn’t want to carry the babies, but they thought it was their punishment for being in love or having sex with someone,” she recalled. “I decided I wanted to do something about it.”

She offered her apartment for procedures and sometimes held hands with women who came. As one of the few black women in the group, she said, “I knew black and brown people wouldn’t participate in the service if they didn’t see themselves involved.”

Even all these years later, Arcana can still see the face of a 16-year-old girl who came to her house with her two friends to ask Arcana for help. She was already five months pregnant, and Arcana performed the procedure on her living room floor. She stayed with the girl all day and then took her home.

“She said to me, ‘But I want you to stop two blocks from my house, and I’ll go over there,'” Arcana recalled. said, ‘Because you know’, and I said, ‘Yes, I do’. Yes.’ I let her go out in that corner and she went back to her parents. I have no idea what she said to them, but I will always remember that goodbye.

The Janes’ story has been told before – in the 1995 book “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service”, by Laura Kaplan; and in two festival films, “Jane: An Abortion Service,” a 1995 documentary, and the fictional “Ask for Jane” (2018) with Arcana as consulting producer.

Arcana was surprised that Sundance chose to screen the two new films. For the festival organizers, it seemed like an obvious choice. “We felt the two were kind of in conversation,” said programming director Kim Yutani, who also selected the French film “Happening,” an adaptation of memoirist Annie Ernaux’s book about her own abortion. illegal in France. in the 1960s.

“The films’ presence on our schedule is more an indication of a moment in society than any agenda of the programming team,” Sundance director Tabitha Jackson said. “If there’s one statement to be made, it’s the timeless one of ‘we follow the artists’.”

Nagy’s approach seems more personal. The principal wasn’t interested in anything resembling homework or what she called “a special after-school program.” In her film, Joy spends less time struggling with the system and more time struggling with her situation as a married college graduate whose life has been reduced to the domestic duties expected of a mother and wife.

Still, Nagy doesn’t shy away from getting into the crucial details of abortion. The first 40 minutes of the film are devoted to Joy’s unsuccessful quest to obtain one, and another 10 are devoted to the procedure itself.

“I was really much more concerned about the accuracy of the medical facts,” said Nagy, who didn’t meet any of the Janes but consulted with a man who performed abortions at the time. (The film’s writers, Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, shared early drafts with Arcana.) “You have to spend that time, I think, for people to get to know her. But more importantly, knowing that it puts women to the test. It’s not something you can easily look away from.

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