Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Puts Women First in Her New HBO Documentary on Abortion
The trailer for Abortion: Stories Women Tell, award-winning filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos’s new documentary, opens on a hall full of people with boundless energy. We catch a glimpse of a low-hanging “Missouri Right to Life” banner behind them. “We are down to one abortion clinic in this state,” a man on a stage before the audience touts to roaring applause.
Droz Tragos’ film looks at lives entangled in the fierce political battle for and against a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. Missouri, where lawmakers’ attacks on abortion access are particularly ruthless, is home for Droz Tragos. She paints intimate portraits of women who share the state with her.
The film follows several Missouri women who want abortions, provide them, defend them, and fight for them—women like those who claim that they would have “killed [themselves]” if they had been forced to carry a past pregnancy to term and those who state they “can’t believe that [they] are a citizen of a country that says it’s OK to kill a baby.” We meet women carrying fetuses with fatal anomalies who are faced with aggressive pro-life protesters or 72-hour waiting periods.
While she’s trained in fiction and screenwriting, Droz Tragos found it important—and satisfying—to center real women’s abortion stories and decided to have women tell their stories themselves. Droz Tragos recently decided to share some of her stories with the FBomb.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The FBomb: This film features an inclusive group of women—in terms of socioeconomic background and in terms of their position on abortion. Why was this inclusivity important to you?
Tracy Droz Tragos: One in three women will have an abortion by the time they're 40. This is not something that is a rare or infrequent; Many, many people seek abortion care. At some point it became clear that if we could include as many stories as possible, they would be harder to dismiss. It made it harder to say ‘Oh well, that's just that story’ or ‘that’s just that one experience.’ So [in the film] we hear from a lot of women, and women from all walks of life.
There are so many women who come in all shapes and sizes. It was important that we hear from women who were representative [of all women], just not just well-to-do women or just low-income women. There are women living on public assistance, from some of the most impoverished parts of the state—the Bootheel part of Missouri. The women are rural and urban. There are more ‘career’ women, there are ‘working’ women—there’s a hairdresser, there's a bartender, there's a waitress, there’s a stay-at-home mom.
I didn't want to make a film that was just seen as an advocacy piece. I thought there’d be real power in hearing from women across the spectrum of experience and opinion, that it’d ultimately make the film more complex and more compelling and more powerful.
Did you have to maintain a level of professional distance with the film’s subjects, or did you become close to them?
Oh, I think professional distance is for like TV news or something. I think I missed the instruction manual that says you’re supposed to keep some distance. I appreciate being transparent, close, and real with the people that I'm meeting and whose stories I'm entrusted to tell. I feel like if I if I keep them at arm's length I'm sometimes really doing them a disservice.
I think my talents are suited to making connections with people, to looking at them and to letting them know that I'm the person who will be telling their story—that they can look me in the eye with some measure of trust. I'm really grateful for all the women who chose to participate in the film. Not everyone could. Many women fear the repercussions in their homes or workplace or within their family. So, my role was to ask women to participate and explain what the intention was.
Many journalists and advocates argue that tactics to curtail abortions have disproportionate effects on already marginalized women. For example, the Hyde Amendment hurts poor, rural women of color the most. Does your film reflect this disparate impact?
I think it's hard to say if we represented [it]. I certainly met with low-income women of color, but that’s a hard question to answer. We were embedded in Hope Clinic in Illinois, which is just over the Missouri state line, and that clinic serves primarily low-income women, and many of them were women of color.
Did making this film reaffirm any of the things you believed about abortion? Did it change anything?
It reaffirmed that that when a woman doesn't have autonomy and control over her body, second-class citizenship is the result. I've gotten the opportunity to meet women who really couldn't overcome the obstacles that were put in their path. I'm very lucky and very privileged in my experience to have had access to all the health care that I have needed, so seeing what it's like when women don't have access to the health care they need, walking even just a few hours in their shoes, will stick with me for the rest of my life. [Working on the film] certainly cemented in my mind that we need to work really hard—and that I would love to work really hard—to make sure that all women are treated equally.
You’ve received a ton of accolades and opportunities in filmmaking. You’ve gotten a coveted MacArthur grant, you’re a Sundance Lab alumna, and in 2015 you were one of six of Sundance’s prestigious Women at Sundance Fellows. What did you gain from these experiences?
That was an amazing year. One of the best parts was being partnered with a coach. The coach could work with us monthly to [help us] really get clear about what our career goals were and how we were going to achieve them. [They taught us to] not back down and not fall into old patterns of our own fears or insecurity. I think it was a really empowering year and I really feel like I've grown as a filmmaker because of it.
What is your advice to young women who dream of being award-winning filmmakers?
The biggest advice I have is to do the work. Find collaborators or find the means to do it yourself. For a long time, when I was right out of film school, I was writing scripts, but I was waiting for permission from somebody else to make a movie, to actually create something. I wanted somebody to say ‘this is good enough.’ It took me a long time to say ‘I’m just going to pick up a camera, and do this.’ It’s hard, it takes financial risk, it takes a lot of stuff, but you’ve got to figure it out if you want to do this work.
Abortion: Stories Women Tell premieres April 3 on HBO
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