Debate about reproductive rights in America is often heated, especially in today’s current and ever-evolving political climate. But what society often fails to remember about one of women’s most important life decisions is that there’s an emotional human story behind pregnancy. The exploration into both the physical and emotional affects of one of the most important decisions women will make in their lives is featured in the new VR documentary, ‘The Choice.’ The movie uses volumetric capture technology and creative design to offer viewers a different perspective on the emotional and complex nature behind one woman’s choice over how to proceed with her pregnancy.
The film was directed and edited by Joanne Popinska, who also served as a producer with Tom C. Hall, who served as the cinematographer on the project, as well. The documentary had its North American premiere in the XR Experience Spotlight section of this year’s SXSW, where it won the XR Experience Spotlight award.
‘The Choice’s award-winning North American premiere came just seven weeks before it was publicly reported that the Supreme Court voted to strike down Roe v. Wade, according to an initial draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, which was circulated inside the court. The draft opinion is a repudiation of the 1973 decision, which guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights, and a subsequent 1992 decision — Planned Parenthood v. Casey — that largely maintained the right.
‘The Choice’ introduces viewers to Kristen Herring, a young Native American woman and feminist activist from Austin, Texas, who dreams of raising children. She and her husband were excited to start their family when she discovered she was pregnant with their first child. However, their joy was soon crushed when they discovered she was experiencing unexpected physical complications during the pregnancy.
The couple made the difficult decision to use abortion care to end the unhealthy pregnancy. But soon after, they began facing obstacles from a health care system that forces women into dehumanizing situations just to survive.
Popinska, Hall and Herring generously took the time during this year’s SXSW to talk about directing, editing and starring in ‘The Choice’ during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the filmmakers and subject discussed that they were inspired to tell Herring’s story in a movie in order to offer a personal testimony about the importance of a woman’s right to decide her own medical fate. The trio also mentioned how honored and grateful they are that the documentary had its North American premiere at SXSW, where a global audience was able to hear about her emotional decision to end her pregnancy.
ShockYa (SY): Joanne, you directed ‘The Choice.’ What inspired you to make a VR documentary about women’s choices over their reproductive rights in the United States, particularly in Texas?
Joanne Popinska (JP): I come from Poland, but currently live in Canada. A couple of years ago, the Polish government started blocking women’s rights and a lot of minorities. I think in 2016, they took the first approach to ban abortion in Poland, and introduce some bills that would penalize it, or make access to it harder.
That’s when I first started thinking about the issue, and how important it is. Many people from my generation felt that it was pretty much granted, and we would only keep moving in progressive ways, not backwards. That’s when we started realizing in Poland that everything could go back.
Then in 2017, I started experiencing virtual reality, and I was really fascinated by how it works, and how powerful it is in transforming you. When you watch the experience, you know you’re not physically there, but it feels like a dream.
A funny situation we encountered with Tom, who’s my partner on the project and in life, was when we were doing test recordings of VR footage. He put the camera on his head, and was filming with his hands in view, chasing one of our cats around the apartment. He recorded the footage from the perspective of his head.
We then showed the footage to our friends. It really struck me that when they saw the cats and Tom’s hands in VR, they instantly made the move like they wanted to grab the cat. I then had an epiphany of how powerful it is, because they knew they were really sitting, and the cats weren’t right in front of them. But they instantly thought Tom’s hands were their hands.
In general, 2016 was a very weird year, with Brexit and Trump being elected. Those events showed that the world is becoming more conservative, and there are more attacks on women’s rights.
So I started to think, what can I do and say as an artist and a woman about the issue, which is very well recognized? Everybody knows about abortion and all the political aspects surrounding it. The debate is very heated and emotional, so I started to think, what’s missing in this debate?
The one thing that I thought was very necessary was personal testimonies. So with my experience as a filmmaker, as well as also being a former sociologist who worked with certain types of bias, the matter I always find the most useful and effective is personal conversations.
So the idea for ‘The Choice’ was literally that – meeting in VR a woman, who had an abortion. You start talking to her, and she shares what she went through. It was important to me that the audience members participate in it. That was something that changed over the years that we were working on it.
The more the project developed, the more I realized that I wanted to say something to the audience. The message that I want them to take away is that they’re important, and what they do – or don’t do – matters. When we make space for other people to speak to us, differences in society start to happen.
SY: Kristen Herring is the woman who appears in ‘The Choice,’ and she shares her experience having an abortion. What was the process like of deciding to feature her and her story in the movie?
JP: I first started reaching out to people to interview in Canada because it was the easiest thing to do, since Tom and I live there. I did find some interviewees, and we recorded some interviews, there.
But I realized that with those interviews, they started showing the situation in the way it should be, and not the conflict and challenge. I wanted to show something more emotional because of who my target audience is, which is people who are slightly, or generally, against abortion.
For them, when I was analyzing what the information was that they were missing, I found that they often think that abortion is against family and motherhood. They also think that people who have abortions are emotionless. So I wanted to find someone who is the opposite.
I also realized that I need to look for someone like that in a country that puts up obstacles. In Canada, there aren’t direct laws about abortions, so they’re allowed. Society, in general, also doesn’t blame you if you have an abortion. There are still issues regarding abortions there, but it’s definitely much better, and a personal decision; there’s no fight over it with society.
So I decided that I needed to come to the U.S. and find stories with this additional element of the fight over abortions in society. That way, I could show the emotions that come with that.
That’s when I put the information about the project on social media, including Facebook and Instagram. That worked out perfectly, because I posted the information about a year after Kristen had her abortion. She was angry and frustrated, and really wanted to share her story.
So as she was scrolling on social media one day, she saw the information I posted about the documentary. It said, “If you want to share your story, please get in touch with me,” so she did. The first time we were in contact was in 2019.
It was about a year before I was able to come down here to Austin and film it. In the beginning, I didn’t have any idea how I would come to the U.S.; I didn’t have much funding for this movie, so while we were securing it, I was also trying to figure out, where are the people who would agree to take part in the film? I had someone in Chicago, and people in various cities and states.
At first, I asked Kristen to write down and publish (the information about her abortion) on my blog – on the film’s website, we have a blog. So she published the details with her pictures, as it was always important to me to show faces with names, in order to make things personal.
Then in 2020, we were actually invited to come to SXSW as a part of the Canadian delegation. We got everything ready, including scheduling six more interviews.
But then COVID started spreading, and SXSW ended up being cancelled about a week before it was supposed to start. We already had our trip booked and the interviews scheduled, so we thought, let’s go to Austin anyway and record them.
But after we landed here, someone from Canada called us and said the virus was spreading much faster than we initially thought. They also said we should go home within the next two days because the borders would be closing, and the flights would be cancelled.
So we thought, how do you record six interviews in one day? It’s impossible. So we had to decide which interviewees we would ask to come. We decided on two of them…because we knew it would take about four to five hours to record per person. One of those people was Kristen.
SY: Once you began filming ‘The Choice,’ how did you approach helming it? What was your overall directorial style like on the production?
JP: The biggest task for me was to establish trust with Kristen, and make her feel safe. She, and every other interviewee I had, were sharing their stories for the first time. When you listen to her story in VR, I really want you, as the viewer, to feel as though you’re talking to a friend, and not a stranger. I also wanted her story to feel natural and not rehearsed, which is why I wanted to feature someone in the documentary who was sharing their story for the first time outside of their family circle.
Tom C. Hall (TCH): Our approach to filming the interviews was to have the technology be visually consistent. So we spent a lot of time refining that process…and make it as least intrusive for the subject as possible. With Kristen, we filmed inside of a real soundstage.
We wanted a setup that was simple enough that we could go into another space. For one of the interviews, we actually filmed in the living room. So pushed all of the furniture to the side, and we hung a black sheet behind them, and had a basic light setup. That way, the camera was able to record uninterrupted…we’d have Joanne and Kristen just have a conversation…so that the process would feel as comfortable as possible. Even though I set up the camera, it felt as though it was only Joanne and Kristen in the room.
JP: I trusted Tom very much during that process, which allowed me to only focus on Kristen during the interview. We had a lot of tough questions…Since it was only the three of us, I could fully focus on her, and allow her to be in a safe space and talk about whatever she wanted to.
After Kristen sent me her story, I preparing about 100 questions for her. The questions were based on my research into both the pro-choice and pro-life sides of abortion…but I made them specific to her situation. Then when we met for the first time in person on the day of the interview, we went through all of the questions.
SY: Kristen, what inspired you to reach out to Joanne and Tom to express your interest in appearing, and what was your experience like of telling them your story, in ‘The Choice?’
Kristen Herring (KH): I didn’t realize how traumatic my experience was until I sat down for the interview, and I explained everything that had happened fully through. That’s also when I realized why it was so important to me to be there.
The reason why I had contacted them was because I knew I wanted to share my story, since it was such a crazy experience. I was really upset and mad that I had to go through that. I’m also mad that there are people in my position who don’t have the same privileges as me, and will die. So I knew it was important to me to share my story, but I didn’t realize the impact it would make while I shared it.
My story is not only about me – it’s also about all of the people in this country who are capable of being pregnant, but are lied to and just treated awfully. The story is bigger than me, so if I can do anything to shed light on reproductive justice, I’ll do whatever I can, including sharing my trauma.
SY: Once the interviews were completed, what was the process like of editing the documentary?
JP: It started in the middle of the pandemic, which allowed us to just focus on this project. We started with the editing, which was a little bit challenging. We didn’t know it was going to be that complicated.
When you edit regular films, you can cut. So when I read the transcribed text (of the interview), I could say, ‘I really want that chunk.’ Then when we watched the video, we would see if she was making a face or gesture. If she was, we could just use her voice.
But here, the most challenging part is that she’s always on camera, and you constantly see her. So whenever she made a face or gesture, we couldn’t use it. So that was the most challenging thing – we didn’t expect it to be so complicated.
Then the next part was to find the most important elements, and build it in a way that introduces you to everything and brings you the emotional moments…I wanted the audience to feel what she felt, which was that she couldn’t do anything. Then a few seconds later, they can feel that maybe they can actually do something.
We also needed to bring in other creatives, including the illustrator, composer and sound designer. Only one of them is in Toronto; everybody else is all over the planet.
Funnily enough with that, I think the pandemic helped us with that. Before that, we did collaborate remotely, but it wasn’t that natural. But with the pandemic, everyone had to switch to it. So it became obvious that we could work with anyone, no matter where they are. I thought, we can hire an illustrator from Switzerland – Zoe Roellin – and programmers from Arizona.
TCH: The illustrations were really important from a narrative standpoint, because we didn’t want them to overwhelm Kristen’s presence. For most of the documentary, she’s there in the experience with you.
So the illustrations are an invitation for you, as a viewer, to imagine what they’re representing. They’re things that depict ideas of places and thoughts, and evoke imagery that prompt the viewer to complete the illustration in their own mind, and in turn, internalize what they’re thinking about. For example, the very abstract representation of a doctor’s clinic makes viewers question how it fits into their personal experiences of what a clinic looks like.
SY: Now that ‘The Choice’ is completed, what has the experience been like to have it make its North American Premiere at SXSW?
KH: This is actually the first time that I’ve ever been to SXSW, so it’s really cool. (Herring laughs.) Not only am I allowed to be here, but I was also given a platform and able to speak and explain more about my story. The whole experience has almost been magical and cool.
I really didn’t know what SXSW was until I moved here about five years ago (from Chicago). After I moved here, I still really didn’t understand it – I just knew that it was a really cool event, and thought, maybe one day I’ll be able to go! Now I’m actually here, and it’s been a bit surreal.
But the whole experience has been overwhelming, both good and bad. I feel so honored and grateful to be here, and given the space to not only tell people my story, but also validate all of my emotions.
I can also do the same thing for the viewers. The way Tom and Joanne set up the booth was that after the viewers watched the video, they were then able to go to a separate room and talk to me.
There were so many people who honestly connected with me and said, “I know exactly how you feel.” They were also able to share their stories…and how their doctors treated them horribly. These are real traumas, and I was able to them and give them comfort. That created a really special, vulnerable and intimate way of healing together.
JP: We premiered (the film) without Kristen in November, and it’s so different to be showing it with her. (Two days before the interview,) we had a panel here, and it was really touching for me to hear her say it was a cathartic experience for her to do that.
There have also been a lot of women who have approached me here to talk about what happened to them…I hope this experience has been a little bit helpful for all of them to start dealing with their trauma.
To also watch the audience when they take the VR headset off has also been amazing. We didn’t tell them in advance that they’d be able to meet Kristen after they watched the documentary. After they took the headset off, they said, “That was so amazing. I want to hug and talk to her.”
I then led them to the other room where they could actually talk to her, and they were so happy about it. There was a lot of hugging and crying together, so I really appreciate that she agreed to do that. I can only imagine how hard it was for her to do that. So for me, this whole experience has been amazing.
TCH: Being at SXSW has been absolutely overwhelming, as there’s so much going on here, and so many different people from different parts of the film and VR industries. It’s such a collusion of all sorts of diverse places. But I think that’s where the creation of new things comes from. So that’s been really incredible.
I’ve also been so proud of Kristen and Joanne, and what they’ve been able to put together. I’m so happy to help execute that. So to be able to put that in front of people here has been so satisfying.