SXSW ’16: Dawn Porter on the challenges in making “Trapped”

Gideon's Army director Dawn Porter talks to realscreen about her latest doc, Trapped, a look at hurdles facing abortion clinics in the Southern U.S.
March 18, 2016

Realscreen caught up with Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army) at Sundance in January to discuss her latest doc, Trapped, which examines the hardships faced by U.S. abortion providers in the South. The film bowed at the Sundance Film Festival and is also playing at SXSW, in addition to select screenings across the U.S. 

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, among the sea of down parkas, orange volunteer jackets and plaid, were hundreds of electric blue beanies branded with the phrase “This clinic stays open.” They were distributed by the team behind Trapped, a documentary on U.S. abortion providers in the South that would ultimately win the festival’s U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking.

Directed by Dawn Porter, who was last at Sundance in 2013 with the critically acclaimed Gideon’s Army, the doc illustrates the enforcement of TRAP laws, or Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, in southern states such as Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. These laws impose specific requirements on medical practitioners and clinics that provide abortions, and can enforce expensive ambulatory surgical facilities (that often go unused) on a clinic or require that providers have admitting privileges at a local hospital. According to some proponents, the laws are intended to make abortions safer for women, but they also present costly and cumbersome barriers to access.

Trapped follows the physicians, clinic owners and lawyers who are fighting for abortion rights in these states. Dr. Willie Parker, for example, travels between clinics in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi to provide care, while June Ayers owns and directs one of the few remaining abortion clinics in Alabama. Many of Porter’s principals have attended premieres of the doc, which has enforced a strict security plan around screenings.

“The reality is, a few weeks before we knew about Sundance, gunmen murdered the people [at the Planned Parenthood facility] in Colorado,” Porter told realscreen in Park City. “So the idea of traveling the only abortion provider for several clinics across the South meant, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t ignore the very real danger.”

Trapped was backed by Firelight Media, Catapult Film Fund, Chicken & Egg, Cedar Creek Pictures, the MacArthur Foundation, Fork Films and Independent Lens, among others. Porter’s Kickstarter campaign also raised US$80,383. Abramorama has theatrical rights to the film, while ro*co Films has educational and international rights, and Film Sprout oversees community screenings.

Since its turn at Sundance, the doc has launched what Porter calls an “innovative” campaign that targets, in particular, the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, which determines whether Texas abortion bill HB 2 – which applies numerous restrictions on abortions – will be upheld. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in early March and a decision is expected in June.

“We’re hoping to have 100 screenings before the Supreme Court issues its decision. I don’t expect people to think what I think, but I do expect them – if they think something – to actually vote and express their will. That’s the hope with the outreach.”

Read on for realscreen’s interview with Porter:

Why wasn’t Colorado’s Planned Parenthood shooting in November discussed in the film? Was it a matter of your production schedule?

It was totally production schedule. We were already pretty locked by the time that that happened. And, mercifully, there were no murders during the two-and-a-half years that I was filming. But also, I very intentionally wanted to talk about an even greater danger to access, which is the legislature.

The clinic in Colorado is not going to close, even after those horrific murders: they will reopen. But [what] if you put laws that a clinic cannot comply with in place, that closed more than half the clinics in Texas? So while, yes, we have to worry about terrorists and criminals, the bigger danger is actually our elected legislators. And that’s why the focus of this film is not the violence that providers face but [how] are democratically elected leaders closing clinics.

Did you ever think about following a character who was “pro-life”?

I reached out to legislators and requested interviews, and nobody would talk to me. One person said they would, but we couldn’t figure out the schedule. And I actually really, really wanted to hear—it’s very important to me. I’m not interested in demonizing anyone. While I was telling the story from the perspective of the providers, I think it’s important for us all to tell the truth. When you compare the arguments and you line them up and talk about them, that’s when the public is most informed, and I think that’s important, so I’d be happy to talk to them. But there wasn’t anybody that we could find.

But what I was interested in is, what is it like if you’re trying to comply with these laws? The providers that I have [talked to] have lived in their respective hometowns for decades. They are of those communities. Their first instinct was not to sue, it was to try and comply. And so, I was very interested, what if you’re trying to do what they say, and it’s still impossible? What does that feel like and how does that impact you?

We don’t learn too much about the home lives of your protagonists. Instead, the story is very much situated in the workplace, and it’s about their professional lives. Was that a decision made by them?

I very much wanted to be home with them and to see the impact on their home lives. It’s such a real security interest that it wasn’t something that I pushed. Particularly with people with small children, because they are targets. June has a security system in their house. I mean, there’s one shot of June that just shows a picture of her daughter, and for a while that was like, ‘Should we blur that so that her daughter is not the target of someone?’ The ways that the security concerns creep into your filmmaking are surprising and kind of distressing. Normally our jobs as filmmakers is to push, push, push, but here I felt that no film was worth endangering anybody’s family. So we kind of relied a lot on trying to get their humanity across through their work.

There didn’t seem to be any major altercations captured in the documentary. Were there conflicts that happened during filming that you chose not to show? 

It was kind of like the O.K. Corral. [The activists and the providers] kind of stayed in their own camps and they weren’t like battling it out. This was a hard movie to make, because there was a lot that – for real security reasons – I couldn’t film. I couldn’t film the doctor being briefed by his [agent], but they instruct them to not engage with the protesters. They had secured a permit from the police that forced the protesters to be across the street, and that really did diffuse the tension [because] they weren’t right up against each other.

But if you go to any clinic where there’s a big protest that’s happening, you will see sometimes violent altercations between the two sides. And the tragedy of that is for the people involved, but also for the patients.

What will your social impact campaign look like for the film?

We have a community outreach screenings booker, [Caitlin Boyle] from Film Sprout. She booked all the screenings for The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War. [Film Sprout] has a really deep understanding of the women’s rights and reproductive justice communities, so she is booking community screenings, in as many colleges, universities, churches, synagogues, and everywhere that we can be in. If we are invited, we will go and do a screening there. And at the same time – which is very unusual – we have theatrical openings, and we’re inviting all of our partner organizations to own those screenings and do publicity around them.

The third piece of it is we’re actually selling the film to colleges and universities. So usually in film, these windows are staggered, but ro*co Films, Abramorama and Film Sprout all agreed to forgo their windows and work together.

  • Trapped screens today (March 18) at Alamo Lamar B at 3:30 p.m. CT. 
  • Check out a trailer for the film below:

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.