The political debate over women’s reproductive rights, particularly their freedom to choose whether to legally have an abortion, in America has become even more heated since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24. 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 each and every pregnancy. The exploration into both the physical and emotional affects of one of the most important decisions women should be able to make for themselves is featured in the new documentary, ‘Battleground.’
Told with restraint and balance, the film, which was directed and produced by Cynthia Lowen, seeks to clarify, rather than condemn, both pro-life and pro-choice supporters and advocates. The movie presents a new point of entry into the topic, in the face of one of the most pressing issues in modern society: rapidly disappearing reproductive rights in America,
‘Battleground’ offers a view into the anti-abortion movement’s quest to overturn Roe V. Wade by following three women, who lead formidable anti-abortion organizations, as they battle their opposition, who are equally determined to safeguard women’s access to safe and legal abortions. The pro-choice organizations are comprised of people from distinctly different walks of life, including Gen Z activists, members of the Christian Right and even some Democrats.
The three women predominately featured in the documentary who led the charge to overturn Roe V. Wade help immerse viewers in the anti-abortion side of the discourse through their well-organized networks, politically potent activism and policy gains under former President Donald Trump. With first-rate access to protests, conferences and recruiting campaigns, the film sets out to offer an an illuminating portrayal of anti-abortion advocates for those on the other side of the debate.
‘Battleground’ had its World Premiere in the Documentary Competition at last month’s Tribeca Festival. The movie premiered on Sunday, June 12, just under two weeks before Roe v. Wade was officially overturned.
Lowen generously took the time during the Tribeca Festival to talk about helming and producing ‘Battleground’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that she was in part inspired to make the movie after Alabama became the first state in the U.S. to pass an all-out abortion ban, which left her wanting to understand why lawmakers there decided to enact such strict reproductive mandates. She also shared that it was an honor to premiere the documentary at the Tribeca Festival at the same time the Supreme Court was preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The interview began with Lowen explaining why she was inspired to make a documentary that focuses on the women who helped led the charge to overturn Roe V. Wade. “I started the project in the summer of 2019 after Alabama was the first state to pass an all-out abortion ban,” she noted.
“So I went down to Alabama to try to understand what was going on on the ground, as it seemed blatantly, boldly and aggressively unconstitutional. I wanted to see what that was doing to people on the ground, in terms of accessing care for patients,” the filmmaker also shared.
“So when I went down to Alabama in the summer of 2019 and started filming with pro-choice activists, I soon felt like I needed to take a step back and look at the bird’s eye power structures that were making it possible for so many anti-abortion policies to be enacted, even though the vast number of Americans support abortion access,” Lowen continued.
“So it was at that point, at the end of 2019, that I started reaching out to the leaders of the anti-abortion movement to say, ‘I really want to understand who you are and what your perspectives and goals are and how you organize and do what you’re doing,'” the director also divulged. “So that’s when I started filming with the three anti-choice women that you see at the center of the film.”
Further speaking of the three pro-life women who appear in ‘Battleground,’ Lowen shared why she decided to feature them in the project. “What drew me to these three particular leaders was that they’re distinctly different from each other. I think they represent three very distinct aspects of the anti-abortion movement,” she revealed.
“On the one hand, you have a group like Susan B. Anthony Pro Life America, which is helmed by Marjorie Dannenfelser. It’s a group that’s very much on the legislative front,” the filmmaker explained.
“They’re raising tons of money for lobbying and federal and local races. They’re highly connected to the most powerful people in the country, like presidents, vice presidents and Mitch McConnell. I think they really show that line to legislative access power that the anti-abortion movement has,” Lowen added.
“Then you have a group like Students for Life who are kind of like the foot soldiers of the movement. They’re young people who are led by Kristan Hawkins. I think her goal is really to get the next generation of anti-abortion youth engaged in the movement and voting, as well as turn them out on state capitals on various anti-abortion bills. I found that she really represents the youth aspect of the movement,” the helmer divulged.
Besides speaking to the women who are featured in the film, Lowen also did additional research into both sides of the abortion debate while making the feature. “We certainly spoke with a lot of pro-choice advocacy and research groups. We spoke with the Center for Reproductive Rights extensively, who are the people who are fighting one of the Supreme Court cases in the film. They’re also an organization that provides a lot of research and data on abortion access, laws and legislation worldwide,” she shared. “So they were a great resource for information.
“Also, groups like Planned Parenthood are pro-choice organizations that are on the front-lines of enabling people to access accurate, facts,” the filmmaker added.
Lowen then delved into what her overall directorial style was like throughout ‘Battle’s production. “As a director, my work tends to be vérité films. So to the greatest degree possible, I try to minimize interviews and instead just be a fly on the wall and really be a witness to the environments and things that the subjects in the film are going through or doing…I knew that was the approach that I wanted to take with this film,” she shared.
“I think with an issue as controversial as abortion in America, I felt like the best way to handle it was to just present these women and their work, perspectives and goals in a way that was very direct, and gives viewers a direct line to them, instead of a mediated, editorialized process,” the helmer divulged. “So what I think the film ends up being is a very strongly vérité-driven documentary that lays out the anti-abortion movement as it is.”
Further speaking of shooting the movie in vérité style, Lowen shared what her experience was like of collaborating with the film’s cinematographers, Barbie Leung and Gabriella Garcia-Pardo, to determine how they would shoot the feature. “We had incredible cinematographers, Barbie Leung and Gabriella Garcia-Pardo, as well as many others who did the smaller shoots. They all have a lot of skill in vérité documentary filmmaking, and are incredible at being in these really intense environments, like the March for Life. They’re really hard environments to film in, and that was before the pandemic.
“These cinematographers are extraordinarily talented women – all of our cinematographers were women. So it’s been really great to showcase the talent and work of these incredible women who also filmed during the pandemic,” the filmmaker revealed.
“The first few months of filming were before the pandemic, but after that, the vast majority of the film was captured following the outbreak of COVID-19. So we put a lot of safety protocols into place when it wasn’t possible to travel. So we did a lot of remote interviews with local teams over Zoom, and we had crews using safety protocols on the ground,” Lowen added.
“So the experience of capturing a vérité style film like this over the course of a pandemic was a window into the ways that we can adapt and be creative in the process of making films and telling the stories themselves. It definitely required a lot of creativity and devotion on the part of the cinematography team,” the director added.
Lowen then delved into how in addition to helming ‘Battleground,’ she also served as one of the producers. “I think a lot of directors, particularly in documentary films, find themselves wearing a lot of hats. So for films like this one, I really had to take that leap of faith and start with a really small team; originally, our team was really small, and we concentrated on getting the interviews and funding we needed to get rolling and show that we have something here that we really needed to pursue,” she revealed.
“Very shortly into the process of filming, I brought on producer Rebecca Stern and co-producer Steffie van Rhee. They were both absolutely instrumental in securing the funding for the film, and making sure we never had to stop filming or stop during post-production,” the filmmaker also shared. “Steffie was absolutely instrumental in communicating with our subjects and being on the ground. So this was a team effort.
“As we went further into production, we also had incredible executive producers come on, like Safe Space Pictures, which is helmed by executive producer Nicole Alexandra Shipley, Ryan Harrington and Jeff Sobrato, as well as Dexter Braff, who’s an executive producer with 5th Man Films,” Lowen continued.
“Also, Ruth Ann Harnisch was the first executive producer to come on board, with the Harnisch Foundation. Her foundation and life work have been totally devoted to justice, reproductive rights and social justice,” the producer also mentioned. “So having this team was really what got he film made.”
Further delving into the post-production process, Lowen then explained how she approached editing the documentary. “I worked with
Nancy Novak, who’s an award-winning, very experienced, acclaimed editor. Our process was impacted by the pandemic, so we had to adjust how we worked together. So she was working in one place, and I was working in another. We traded a lot of cuts and looked at a lot of things online,” she shared.
“Then when we got to the end of the process of editing the film, she stayed with me for a couple of weeks. We sat and finished it together,” the filmmmaker continued.
“Nancy and our additional editor, Katharina Stroh, brought so much thoughtfulness, wisdom and restraint to how the film is edited and how we told these stories, without trying to sway viewers one way or another; they just presented the information the way it is. Again, they were absolutely instrumental team members who believed in this project, and wanted to make sure these stories got told in the most compelling way possible,” Lowen added.
With ‘Battleground’ now completely edited and ready to be viewed by audiences, the director shared her excitement that it had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Festival last month. “It’s been wild having the film come out at Tribeca at the exact same time the country (was) preparing to have Roe v. Wade be overturned in a matter of weeks. I don’t know if I’ve ever had this experience of having a film meet the world, and the political and social context of the world, in such a profound confluence of events,” she shared.
“Having such leaders at the World Premiere as Alexis McGill Johnson from Planned Parenthood and Lourdes Rivera from the Center for Reproductive Rights speaking about why it’s so important for everyone to see this film because it’s so informative was so meaningful,” Lowen continued.
“We were also able to invite several of the contributors from the film, who shared their stories of seeking abortions in states where abortions access has been utterly inveterated, come up on stage and talk about the importance of talking about abortion and share their stories, which was amazing. It was an incredibly powerful thing to do, as I think a lot of people in this country are wondering how it’s possible we’ve arrived at the end of Roe v. Wade, and asking what we can do next,” the filmmaker concluded.