In Fall 2006 South Dakota was about to vote on Referendum 6, a total abortion ban. Angie Young was sent by the National Abortion Federation to help the “No on 6” campaign. Understanding the historical importance of this moment in the battle for women’s rights she bought a video camera and began documenting. Realizing she had found her calling, Angie took classes in videography and taught herself how to edit with Final Cut Pro. Traveling all over America and Canada she interviewed activists, illegal abortion survivors, abortion providers, educators, artists, and opponents of choice. Angie worked on the film with 24/7 passion until its completion in August 2008. An official selection in the 2009 Rosebud Film Festival, The Coat Hanger Project has screened at colleges, universities, conferences, film festivals and community centers all over the world, including Ladyfest London 2011 and Red Dawns 2011 queer feminist arts festival in Slovenia. Angie has traveled all over America, and to Canada, Ireland, the UK, and Poland screening The Coat Hanger Project and inspiring discussion of reproductive rights.
At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee a screening was organized by the campus pro-choice and anti-choice groups together and was followed by what Angie describes as: “one of the best and most respectful discussions about abortion that I have ever experienced.” One might expect from the title that Angie’s film would be a polarizing polemic, but quite to the contrary, as Yale’s newspaper pointed out, The Coat Hanger Project depolarizes the debate. As Angie says, for almost everyone born after 1973 choice is a comfortable assumption. Even now as the GOP’s culture warriors fight an unprecedented war to roll back women’s rights, with over 350 anti abortion bills last year alone, most of us take for granted our right to choose. Here’s Angie’s take on the disconnect: “There are many reasons this could be: cultural trends towards conservatism, the well-funded and well-organized anti-choice movement, the reign of the Bush years, fetal propaganda, anti-feminist backlash, or the popularity of movies such as Juno. Also perhaps time itself has played a role, removing from the collective conscious of people born after 1973 the first-hand memories of illegal abortion.”
It’s a reminder that MySpace was once Facebook that Angie found people to interview representing both sides of the issue on that now obsolete networking site. That’s where she found the Iraqi War veteran in the film who had performed a self-induced abortion. Angie has multiple documentaries in the works.
She’s just finished filming The Incest Machine, which “looks at the subject of incest from personal, political and theoretical perspectives with the hope that by telling our stories we can break the machine of incest and end the cycles of violence and patriarchy-sustaining destruction it creates.” Do We Really Need the HPV Vaccine, co-directed by Julie Slater, “looks at the fast-tracking of the Gardasil vaccine in girls and the controversies surrounding state and nation-wide mandates for the drug,” which disproportionately effect minorities. Angie is just getting started on another co-directed project, with Vega Darling, a documentary on the punk feminist riot grrrl movement that changed so many lives, including my own.
Angie Young is one of a new breed of what you could call community filmmakers. The festival tradition of strutting your stuff for distribution, the old way of doing things, has lost not only much of its appeal for young film makers, but also most of its effectiveness. The documentary idiom itself is in doubt with a media environment where multiple formats demand that a project become multiple projects. But like a three-minute song, a feature length documentary has a certain balance that makes palatable the power to persuade. Yet festivals can still bring our attention to films like Food Inc. and Chasing Ice.
I have no idea what will replace today’s outdated and exploitative film business but I believe you can find a hint of what the future will look like in the work of community filmmakers like Angie Young or Charles Shaw. Neither are film school graduates. Both were moved by a serious social issue enough to learn how to film and edit. Both crisscrossed the continent gathering content in every corner of the country, and then traveled far and wide for screenings in mostly non-traditional venues. This barnstorming the film takes the movie business back to its earliest roots when independent filmmakers would shoot out west then travel across America seeking places in every town to screen their silent movies. Full circle?
I discussed this and other matters recently with Angie for Newtopia.
Have you screened The Coat Hanger Project in Kansas?
Not yet, although I would love to bring it to the state that bore witness to the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a late-term abortion provider, champion of women’s rights and all-around feminist hero. I had the incredible privilege of meeting him through my work with the National Abortion Federation while he was still alive, and he had actually agreed to be interviewed for The Coat Hanger Project. Unfortunately, he ended up getting shot before I had a chance to sit down with him. Dr. Tiller is the one who said “until you understand the heart of a woman, nothing about abortion makes any sense at all.” So yes, I would love to have a screening in Kansas, especially if it was in honor of the late, great Dr. Tiller!
Please tell us more about that screening of The Coat Hanger Project at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
This was a really powerful experience for me, as it was the first time I had the pro-choice and anti-choice groups on a campus come together to bring me in. In a weird twist, the screening was held in a large campus building that was also hosting an anime conference at the same time. To get to the theater, you had to walk through the main hall where there were dozens of students walking around in elaborate anime costumes, and there were signs up that said “Anime Milwaukee Neither Supports Nor Endorses The Coat Hanger Project.” Despite not getting the official endorsement of the anime conference, once I got into the theater, the event itself actually went very smoothly. Thankfully both of the groups organizing the event had leadership that was very mature and respectful and interested in creating a space where everyone’s viewpoints could be heard and actual dialog could take place. This has always been my dream of what could be possible with creating an event like this. Before the start of the event, there was an announcement made by representatives from both the pro-choice and anti-choice campus groups reminding the audience that the purpose of the night was to learn about the history of what happened before abortion was legalized, and to create a safe space where we could talk respectfully to each other about the significance of this and how to move forward. No fighting or disrespectful comments would be tolerated. This really helped set the tone for a respectful and powerful exchange on the topic. Aside from one anti-choice student asking me rather pointedly if I had ever had an abortion myself (I have not) and then leaving the theater, the rest of the night was really fantastic, and we were able to talk across the conflict. The fact of the matter is that people feel very strongly about this issue, but it is possible to create dialogue and meaningful exchange without being disrespectful if you purposefully set out to do it.
Have you encountered hostility with the Coat Hanger Project? If so, how do you deal with it?
I have showed The Coat Hanger Project in many places now where abortion is either illegal or people are hostile towards the idea of it, for instance in Ireland and Poland where it is in fact illegal. Luckily I have not been harassed or experienced any direct aggression from an anti during a screening of the film. Believe it or not, I have actually had anti-choicers come up to me after a screening and tell me they thought the documentary was really good and that it made them think. This is the highest praise I could hope for from a committed anti-choicer! Probably the most intense clashes I have gotten into with The Coat Hanger Project happened while I was making it, when I was doing work with the pro-choice counter-protesters outside of Falls Church Health Care Center in Fairfax, Virginia and documenting their activism. They engaged in silent protest, but the antis there would get in their faces, harass them, and call them names. I would put down the camera to hold up signs with them, and the antis would engage with me in name-calling and harassment. I have some great footage of one of these guys in The Coat Hanger Project – he is holding a crucifix and wearing a baseball hat that said “Lifeguard.” He went on a pretty amazing rant with me at one point about how he was actually the “true” feminist. I have also gotten into similar scuffles while getting footage during the annual “Right to Life” marches in DC that happen on Roe v. Wade day (Jan. 22).
What is the Incest Machine?
The Incest Machine is an experimental documentary I’ve been working on since 2009 that explores the cyclical nature of incest and child sexual abuse, and their connections to hypocrisy, systems of oppression and the sustainment of patriarchy. It opens the door to ending the silence surrounding incest and child sexual abuse, and offers new possibilities for healing and transformation for all who have been affected by sexual abuse. Other topics I plan to cover include Freud’s suppression of the Seduction Theory, incest in the Bible, and surviving vs. suicide, and all this interwoven with experimental film I’ve shot. I have interviewed over 30 experts, artists, spiritual healers and survivors, including Derrick Jensen (A Language Older Than Words, Endgame), Laura Davis and Ellen Bass (The Courage to Heal), Jeffrey Masson (Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory), Diana Russell (The Secret Trauma), Carolyn Gage (playwright, and Betsy Salkind (comedian and former comedy writer for the Roseanne show). It’s been a struggle to complete it as I don’t have any funding (la la la, the theme song of independent filmmaking!) but I’m hoping to finish this by the end of the year/early 2013.
Where will you be screening The Incest Machine?
When I finish The Incest Machine, I’m planning to release it in the US and Canada and go on a screening and speaking tour like I did with The Coat Hanger Project. I imagine these screenings will mostly take place in radical bookstores of major cities, independent theaters, and other organizations that might be willing to donate theater space to me for an evening. After this, I will seek out screenings with schools and universities across the US and try to connect with women’s studies and psychology departments to bring the film and the message to students. I’ll rely on my network and gamble on the power of social media to hopefully help me spread the message far and wide. If, along the way, the magical film fairy of destiny waves her wand over this project and blesses it with getting into a film festival, or finding a cool feminist distributor to promote it, perhaps I will be able to get it out there even more!
What’s the status on Do We Really Need the HPV Vaccine?
This project is on hold for the moment as my co-director Julie Slater is going to Grad School in Berlin. We do plan to finish this though; there is still a lot about the story of this controversial drug that interests me and I think would be interesting to others.
What have you discovered about the Gardasil controversy?
Well, I have heard lots of perspectives on this and I can tell you it’s a complicated situation. There are many elements at work. Doctors say it’s a good drug that does what it’s supposed to, but there are also voices out there questioning just how harmless it really is. Christina Tarsell is an example of someone who died as a result of the vaccine, her videos are all over youtube. On the other hand, cervical cancer is a terrible thing and anything we can do to limit the chances of women getting it seems to be in the interest of the common good (over 4,000 women die every year in the US of cervical cancer according to the National Institute of Health). Another side of this is that we are still learning about this drug, and yet somehow it was able to become mandatory vaccine for 6th graders in Virginia and DC. Is that a good thing? Or did those young girls become guinea pigs? We all agree that it is important to prevent cervical cancer, but pap smears are still considered the best way to do this, and women who get the vaccine still need to do this. So there are many perspectives on this issue, and I think it’s a rich topic in terms of women’s health, sexuality and the medical and pharmaceutical industrial complex.
What on earth possessed you to go after riot grrrl? Haven’t you seen enough horror?
The story of riot grrrl is dear to my heart, as I grew up on it and found an articulation of my political rage in my younger years and still today. Also I think the story of riot grrrl is really a story of my generation and the way many of our identities evolved. My co-director and good friend Vega Darling has a depth of knowledge on the subject of riot grrrl that is unmatched, and we are putting together an amazing team of completely awesome and radical people that is going to break this subject open like it has never been done before. I think the only way to truly understand ourselves and our culture in 2012 is by getting out our magnifying glasses and time machine helmets and traveling back in time to the mosh pits of the early 90s.
Apparently your dad is to blame for your feminist inclinations; please tell us what sort of man raises this sort of child? What about mom?
My parents were hippies. My dad took me to Take Your Daughter to Work Day, taught me that abortion was a woman’s choice, encouraged me to learn about birth control, and made me promise him I would never rely on a man to take care of me. Through him, I learned about feminist ideas. My mom was an incredible woman who had a really hard life. She was not a feminist, but she taught me about feminism from the inside out, through her life experience, which required me to become a feminist in order to understand.
Dealing with such dire subjects how do you avoid getting overwhelmed?
It’s not about not getting overwhelmed. I get overwhelmed all the time. It’s about learning to live within the spaces of being overwhelmed. Within the uncomfortable paradoxes of life itself, and the ultimate insecurity of the human condition to which we are all condemned. And somehow find liberation and joy in the grips of that open-eyed awareness of the nearly unbearable reality of full truth.
You mention friendships with filmmakers when you were first starting out? Care to name some and describe how they helped you or visa versa?
Somewhere around 2007, when I was making The Coat Hanger Project, I became friends online with another first-time filmmaker from Berlin, Sarah Diehl, who was working on her first documentary, Abortion Democracy: Poland/South Africa. We ended up talking about our processes together and became email pen pals, and eventually decided to release our films together and tour with them. We ended up doing this two times, in the US and again the next year in Ireland, Poland and the UK. We have done other appearances at conferences like the National Women’s Studies Association together as well. My friendship and collaboration with Sarah Diehl has been a critical part of my development as a filmmaker. I encourage all people who are interested in film to find friends who are filmmakers and learn as much as you can from them. To truly be good at the craft of filmmaking in my opinion, you need to be able to get outside of your own head, which requires the help and perspective of many smart people that you can trust and that you love, especially other filmmakers. Editing a film is like giving birth to a litter of beautiful babies and then being forced to kill them with your bare hands. Because your movie can’t be nine hours long. Sometimes the judgment calls of what to cut versus keep requires you to seek the perspective of people outside of yourself. And this is where your friendships with other filmmakers can really come in handy, because they know how it is, and they can be objective. To make something really good requires the help of everyone you know, and the perspectives of everyone you can possibly let in. So I rank friendships with other filmmakers right up there at the top of the list of important things for newbie filmmakers to seek out.
Written by Tamra Spivey
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.