Lake Of Fire

Lake Of Fire


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Tony Kaye, best known for the controversial 1998 feature American History X, here tackles an equally emotive module in the ‘Understanding the USA’ course - the issue of abortion, and the battle between pro-choicers and pro-lifers.

Very early on, it becomes clear that ‘battle’ really isn’t too strong a word for it. Several doctors and staff working at abortion clinics have been murdered, or seen the clinics bombed, and stand-offs between the two sides are commonplace.

Copy picture

Kaye admirably avoids being drawn into such a heated atmosphere. His documentary is a powerful, restrained work which sets out the arguments on both sides. A telling early shot shows a doctor matter-of-factly disposing of the remains of a termination; there’s no doubt they look human, and that those parts floating in the surgical dish could be regarded as a life cut short.

Equally, one of the most compelling of the many talking heads is a liberal atheist who nevertheless believes (and argues calmly and reasonably) that from the moment of conception an unborn child is a viable human being with the same right to life as anyone else.

Alas, he seems to be in a very small minority among the pro-lifers, who exhibit every negative trait of America’s Religious Right; utterly convinced of their own moral superiority, regarding anyone who does not support them as not only wrong but evil, and prepared to use violence as a first resort.

There’s a lot of Michael Moore-esque fun to be had, and Kaye has it, in simply pointing the cameras and turning on the sound in front of the average group of pro-life protesters. One man (clearly not the brightest candle in the tabernacle) questioned about whether blasphemy is a capital crime thinks hard and consults his superiors before deciding that, yes, saying ‘damn’ is worthy of execution.

As your jaw drops ever further, Kaye unfussily and unobtrusively makes the point that abortion isn’t the only thing these people are against by a long chalk; sodomites, socialists (ie people who believe in things like taxes and state healthcare) and other such degenerates are the enemy in a Biblical war and destined for the titular lake. The joy and certainty with which pro-life campaigner (and former alcoholic Ku Klux Klan member) John Burt describes the fate awaiting anyone who happens to disagree with him is truly spine-chilling.

However, Kaye’s investigations into the murkier reaches of the USA’s Christian fundamentalist movement are something of a diversion from his main topic, in a film that could have handled some judicious editing. But just when you’re ready to dismiss all anti-abortionists as fire and brimstone fruitloops along comes footage of a Republican presidential candidate taking a not dissimilar stance, or statistics about the decline in the number of abortion clinics and doctors training in pregnancy termination since the murders and bombings of the 1990s.

More telling is the testimony of the woman who was the plaintiff in the landmark Roe Vs Wade case of the 1970s (which first enshrined a woman’s right under US law to have a termination for reasons other than ‘to save the mother’s life’) but is now a pro-life campaigner. It’s impossible not to be moved by her story, or to dismiss her opinions. But a telling caption at the start of the film reveals that South Dakota is proposing a new law which would effectively reverse the Roe/Wade decision.

In the end, it seems to me pretty clear what Kaye’s attitude to that would be; for all that the excesses of the pro-lifers make great cinema, victory for them would undoubtedly be a step backwards. A long final section of the film follows a young woman through every stage of a termination; it’s traumatic, invasive, physically and mentally draining and clearly not something anyone would undergo lightly. Equally clearly, she feels it’s the right thing to do and the idea that it should be absolutely forbidden ought to make anyone with a concern for personal freedom feel uneasy.

At two and a half hours the film is undoubtedly a long haul. The same points (on both sides) are made more than once and there comes a time when you really don’t want to hear another frothing bigot (or worse, another media-savvy charmer making the same beliefs sound reasonable). But for the most part this is gripping, intelligent cinema. Beautifully shot in stark black and white (though its stance is anything but) and with a subtle, emotive score by Ann Dudley, the fact that the film has yet to find a UK distributor is a scandal given some of the ephemeral rubbish that does get on to our screens. I hope that situation changes, but if it doesn’t seek this film out wherever you can find it.

Reviewed on: 26 Nov 2007
Share this with others on...
Lake Of Fire packshot
Documentary on the abortion debate in America, which arouses passionate feelings on both sides.
Amazon link

Director: Tony Kaye

Year: 2006

Runtime: 152 minutes

Country: US


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Bowling For Columbine