Sunday, 9 June 2019


By Dimitri Keramitas
In many countries, abortion has long been legal and so has passed out of current debate. This is the case of most "Western" nations. However, in the United States, where a Supreme Court decision legalized abortion in 1973, several conservative states have passed restrictive laws that are tantamount to a ban. Missouri may soon no longer have a single abortion clinic.
These states aim to force the Supreme Court to reconsider its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, now that a majority of justices (with two recent Trump Administration appointees) are conservative. If this happens, the US won’t want for company. Research shows that 26 nations forbid abortion under all circumstances (including three small European states: Malta, Andorra, and San Merino). Thirty-seven permit abortion only in exceptional circumstances (when the mother’s life is in danger). Thirty-six more permit abortion under slightly less rigid legislation (preserving the mother’s health). And 24 countries take into account preserving the mother’s mental health. (Figures from World Population Review).
A scene from Que Sea Ley.
That makes 123 countries where the right to choose is restricted or prohibited. This is the context to keep in mind when we watch Juan Solanas’s documentary Que Sea Lea (Let It Be Law), about a recent effort to liberalize abortion law in Argentina. The film was screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where women assembled on the red carpet to continue their protest.
Argentina is one of those nations that doesn’t completely ban abortion, but severely restricts it. Many women in the country are too poor to finagle pseudo-legitimate abortions as the more privileged do, and this highlights the sharp schism between rich and poor concerning the most basic of rights, reproductive freedom and control of one’s own body.
On a practical level, it leads desperate women to fatal alternatives: self-abortion and clandestine abortion. A new law was to change this situation. It was voted by the Argentine House of Representatives and needed only the approval of the Senate to become law. Que Sea Lea focuses on the campaign in 2018 to convince the Senate to pass the legislation and put Argentina among the ranks of advanced countries with liberal abortion laws.
The film is on one level a mosaic, with a diversity of segments that alternate. There is kinetic, colourful footage of huge street demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, marching on the pavement in Buenos Aires. The atmosphere is festive, with much chanting, singing, drum-beating, and dancing. Visually we note the color green, symbol of the pro-choice movement.
Film director Juan Solanas.
What’s remarkable is the overwhelming number of women, mostly young, with contingents of the middle-aged and elderly, and a smattering of children. It’s reminiscent of the Women’s March in Washington after Donald Trump’s election. This being Latin America, one cannot help recalling the scenes of enormous pro-Allende crowds in the film The Battle of Chile. (Solanas’ father Fernando was the director of another classic Latin American documentary, The Hour of the Furnaces.)
We also see a few scenes of anti-abortion protestors, with their blue color. They seem to be mostly evangelical Christians, with more male speakers, and are generally an older crowd. Like right-to-lifers in the US, they can be vociferous (the crowd’s mascot is a giant embryo reminiscent of the star-child in 2001). Some activists openly make references to the American anti-abortion movement as inspirations (it’s common knowledge that evangelical groups have become increasingly active in Latin America).
We also witness several speeches inside the Senate chamber. There are Senators and guest speakers on both sides. The most powerful pro-abortion advocate is actually an elderly male senator, while a doctor, also male, presents a forceful anti-abortion speech that strangely mixes medical authority and evangelical fervour. Whatever position one has on abortion, it’s hard not to be impressed with the passion with which the Argentines debate the issue. 
There are the inevitable talking heads as well, speaking directly to the camera. Activists, politicians, and doctors contextualize the issue for us. They’re obviously intelligent, educated, sincere persons, and we appreciate the explanations concerning Argentine society. However, as with all such interview sequences, we can’t help feeling we’re being told how and what to think. This is why the great documentary film-makers like Frederick Wiseman do without them, while someone like Michael Moore prefers antagonistic interviewees (e.g. Charlton Heston in Bowling for Colombine) that he can undercut and skewer.
Street demonstrations in Que Sea Ley.
The most impressive figures are the parish priests who work in poor villages. Their faces have a worn yet hardy look, so different from the slick elegance of the upper-class interviewees. Their spiritual values are implicit, incarnate if you will, as they unpretentiously recount the simple facts about the plight of poor women and girls with unwanted pregnancies.
The most searing parts of Que Sea Lea, the set-pieces of the mosaic, are the case studies of women who desperately sought abortions. One woman, Ana Maria Acevedo, seems to have become a cause célèbre. The mother of several children, she died after having a clandestine abortion and receiving egregiously poor care in a hospital. We hear from her parents and her children, see the primitive place where the family lives.
The stories of other women depicted are no less heart-rending. Many of the women were not only poorly treated in hospitals but subjected to persecution by the police - even while hospitalized - for having obtained illegal abortions. In one case a woman had miscarried, yet was threatened with arrest on suspicion of having had an abortion. Thanks to these powerful segments we see that abortion laws aren’t just abstract talking-points but have life-and-death consequences.
The varied segments are not organized haphazardly. Seeking a comprehensive view of an entire society through the prism of one issue, Solanas divides the film into sections dealing with different themes: social inequality, feminism, religion and the like. Keeping the mosaic form throughout, especially the vivid demonstration and case-study scenes, prevents the film from becoming schematic.
There are gaps: the role of sex education, contraception, and adoption are mentioned but not really explored. We also never get the perspective of the men. I don’t mean the male politicians, activists, doctors, priests, and even fathers, but the partners who were co-responsible for the women’s pregnancies. What were their feelings? Did they support the women? Were they irresponsible or just indigent? Perhaps intellectual lucidity comes at the price of not gumming up one’s emotions.
The campaign comes to an end, bringing the film to a close. It was not the result the women campaigners were hoping for. After such heroic efforts and so much heartbreak, the conclusion feels genuinely tragic. But as in a Shakespearean tragedy, once the bodies are cleared away, there are the survivors who carry on. The title, Let It Be Law, implies an arc that will bend to justice one day even if we can’t put a timeline on it. In the meantime, we can be sure that the importance of Juan Solanas’s brilliant documentary is, unfortunately, not limited to his own land.
Production: Les Films du Sud. Distribution: Wild Bunch. Photographs courtesy of the producers.
Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris.