By Stephanie Ornelas
“When we organize and come together, we can change the world, but we need to take action to organize, and right now, everyone watching, we need your involvement. We need to change this world.”
These were the words of activist Heather Booth as she joined Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin, directors of The Janes, along with writer Judith Arcana and activist Marie Leaner, for the documentary’s post-premiere Q&A at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Like Pildes and Lessin, It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to collaborate with activists to educate their audiences about an important topic, especially when it comes to human rights.
To continue our series on films surrounding reproductive health, we’re looking back at the powerful discussions that took place at the Fest in January surrounding the subject matter. And as we approach the release of The Janes on HBO Max this Wednesday, the words of each panelist were truly significant, especially after the Supreme Court draft opinion leaked on May 2 that suggests overturning Roe v. Wade.
The Janes centers around The Jane Collective, an underground service in Chicago that helped women safely access abortion. The women behind the group, which included Booth, Arcana, and Leaner — all subjects in the film — were known under a code name. If people found themselves in trouble with an unwanted pregnancy, a friend or acquaintance in the know might advise them to ‘call Jane.’ As original members of the collective, Booth, Arcana, and Leaner collectively agreed: The Janes could not have premiered at a better time.
“It feels right on time,” says Leaner. “I can’t believe we get to tell the story of Jane, which is a group of women who decided to take it in their hands to make healthcare, specifically abortaions, safe for women — for women of color and poor women, which was just unheard of back in the day.”
When the previous administration took over the US executive branch in 2017 and soon after Pildes realized there could be a serious threat to reproductive rights throughout the United States, she was moved to act. “I think the reason why the Janes were willing to speak to me was because they were seeing and feeling the same thing that we were at that moment and things were feeling really dire. Many of them spoke for the very first time.”
“We felt called to duty. As filmmakers, this is what we can contribute, so we did everything we could to help tell this story of a time when women didn’t have the right to choose in this country,” she adds.
Lessin, who’s been a filmmaker for 30 years now, admired how there was something extremely hopeful about this story due to the fact that it’s so dramatic and compelling. “You have this clandestine group of women doing this extraordinary activity at great risk to themselves, to their professions, and to their families, just because they wanted to make sure women got basic healthcare.”
“It was drama that very few people knew about. And at this moment in time, I think we need hope. There’s something very hopeful about what they did in community together,” Lessin continues.
Sundance Institute senior programmer Basil Tsiokos asked for advice on what we can do now to protect rights to abortion, considering all the current efforts to undermine Roe v. Wade. It was a question repeatedly asked by curious audience members throughout the Q&A.
Because, as Arcana explains, “[Reproductive rights] haven’t been what we’ve wanted them to be for a very long time, but now, because the power of the anti-abortion movement, it feels extra tough.”
Still, “We shouldn’t be waiting until the Supreme Court decision,” says Booth. “We shouldn’t be waiting for anyone else. We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for,” she adds. “We need to spread the message this film does — whether it’s on social media or in our conversations or by promoting this film. We have to continue support for the legal efforts, for the legislative efforts, for the support efforts and those abortion funds that are now supporting women. It matters how we convert our social power into political power.”
There’s been a lot of discussion going on lately around reproductive rights. During the Festival in January, Booth stressed there’s no time to be wasted when it comes to raising awareness and getting people educated on reproductive health.
“We are at a knife’s edge in which direction we go as a country,” says Booth. “Do we go forward to full inclusion of women, for civil rights, for democracy, for hope for the future? Or do we go in a direction of autocracy, demagoguery, lack of science, lack of truth, and the destruction of so many things we’ve fought for for the last 50 years, including the question of a woman’s most intimate decision: the decision to decide when or whether to have a child.”
The Janes will be released on HBO Max June 8.