Sundance 2022 Feature Films Take On Abortion Rights

Jan. 22 was the 49th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, and it could be the last, pending yet another Supreme Court decision. As anti-abortion groups marched in Washington for the annual March For Life, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival had lined up three films that show what it looks like to live in a society without access to legal abortions.

Call Jane

In every way, Joy (Elizabeth Banks) appears to be the perfect 1960s American wife and homemaker. With a pristinely coiffed blond bouffant and floral patterned house dress, she cares for and dotes on her attorney husband Will (Chris Messina) and 15-year-old daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards). When she gets pregnant, it’s a cause for celebration. Until her first doctor’s visit, that is. With her life threatened by the pregnancy, Joy seeks an abortion. 

Elizabeth Banks and Wunmi Mosaku appear in Call Jane (a film about providers of illegal abortion) by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.  All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
Elizabeth Banks and Wunmi Mosaku appear in Call Jane by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.

This is what the film does well, showing the frustration and desperation of a woman meeting obstacle after obstacle to receive life-saving medical care. The hospital’s (all-male) board denies her an abortion because there’s a chance Joy could carry the pregnancy to term (but potentially kill her in the process). She then seeks out a diagnosis of insanity from two psychiatrists, her only other avenue to a legal abortion. She’s denied that as well. And legality wasn’t the only obstacle. After all, this was an era where women couldn’t have their own bank accounts and were often denied contraception and likely couldn’t work if they were pregnant or had children. 

“How do you just keep going?” Joy’s husband asks that night as she goes about her regular beauty regimen before bed. 

“Because that’s what I do,” she says. What else can she do? 

When Joy does decide to go the extralegal route, she comes across a flier advising her to “Call Jane.” Jane, as it turns out, isn’t one woman but several, a collective working to give women access to safe abortions. After her abortion, which she hides by saying she had a miscarriage, Joy begins helping The Janes. As she meets women desperate to terminate their pregnancies—far more than the Janes can possibly accommodate—Call Jane shows Joy’s transformation from demure housewife to a supporter of women’s rights and an abortionist herself. This is partially spurred by tension among the Janes as they try to decide which women they will help. 

A pivotal scene shows the desperation of the Janes to help the likewise desperate women. They wrote the information of each one on a 3×5 index card and pass them around: Mothers who can’t provide for another child, women without access to birth control, rape victims, young girls, cancer patients and on and on.

Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver appear in Call Jane (a film about providers of illegal abortion) by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by  Wilson Webb.  All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver appear in Call Jane by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.

While based on true events, Call Jane is a film in want of a climax. The group was eventually raided and arrested in 1972 (about a year before Roe v. Wade, which would render anti-abortion laws in 46 states unconstitutional), but that part of the story doesn’t really make it into the movie. We also miss out on a resolution to Joy’s domestic drama, which becomes more and more the focus of the film as it progresses. Performance highlights include Sigourney Weaver as the righteous and assertive Virginia, the de facto leader of the Janes, Cory Michael Smith as the Janes’ awkward-mannered abortionist, brief appearances by Kate Mara as Joy’s neighbor and friend Lana and Chris Magaro as a police officer whose single scene provides a much-needed (if not too late) rise in the stakes.  

Call Janes premiered day two of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is still seeking distribution at last check. 

ABOUT CALL JANE DIRECTOR PHYLLIS NAGY
Phyllis Nagy is a writer and director whose work includes award-winning films (Mrs. Harris), screenplays (Carol), and plays (Disappeared). 


The Janes

The Janes is the second film at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival about the real-life group the Jane Collective. The Janes is a documentary that chronicles the group’s formation out of the near-daily revolutions happening in Chicago 1968 through its dissolution in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. During that time, abortion was a crime in most states (and even circulating information about abortion was a felony in Illinois) and the Janes provided abortions to an estimated 11,000 women. 

Sundance film The Janes. (A documentary film about providers of illegal abortion) All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
A still from The Janes by Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Janes begins with a little stage-setting, taking us through the political and societal upheaval of 1968 Chicago and liberation and anti-war movements where some of the Janes cut their teeth. We also see the gruesome results of women who, out of necessity or desperation, risk a variety of abortion methods. A medical doctor interviewed in the documentary recalls the septic abortion ward at Cook County Hospital, where they admitted women who had undergone an illegal abortion and something had gone wrong. He recalls treating women and girls with chemical burns, perforated organs, infections, septic shock, and every day, that ward was full. No matter the legality, there are going to be women who seek abortions. And the founding members of the Jane Collective, some of whom had received abortions themselves, saw the need for those abortions to be performed safely. Women were dying and it seemed no one else cared. Through this, The Janes establishes the impossibly high stakes.  

The story of the Jane Collective is told through archival footage and interviews with those involved. Their sharp recollection of the events gives the documentary its weight and emotion, and we get glimpses into their surprising playfulness, drive and deep care. One woman, Jeanne, still had a stack of the 3×5 index cards on which (as shown in Call Jane) they wrote the information of people seeking abortions from the Jane Collective. They would pass those cards around their group, assigning each one to the member who thought she could best handle that particular case. For years, their clandestine network avoided detection by using code names, fronts and safe houses. Unlike in Call Jane, in The Janes, we learn how the collective is ultimately raided by police and the members arrested and charged as told by the people who were there. What saved them from a lifetime in prison was partly a legal strategy of delay, delay, delay and partly the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade. 

With abortion no longer illegal—which it had been in most states—the Jane Collective dissolved and the members largely went their separate ways, pursuing other causes. The septic abortion ward at Cook County Hospital was also shuttered a year later, as, like the Jane Collective, it was no longer needed. 

The Janes premiered on the fifth day of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and has already been picked up for distribution by HBO. 

ABOUT DIRECTOR TIA LESSIN
Tia Lessin was nominated for an Academy Award for her work as a director and producer of the Hurricane Katrina survival story Trouble the Water, winner of the 2008 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Gotham Independent Film Award. She directed and produced Citizen Koch, about the rise of the Tea Party in the Midwest, which also premiered at Sundance and was shortlisted for an Oscar in 2014. The Janes is the third feature-length documentary that Tia has directed. 

ABOUT DIRECTOR EMMA PILDES
Emmy-nominated filmmaker Emma Pildes has an extensive background in, and boundless love for, non-fiction storytelling. The Janes is Emma’s directorial debut. 


Happening

The third Sundance film that gives a look at what a society without legal abortion could look like takes place in France, 1963. The official synopsis of Happening reads, “Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a bright young student with a promising future ahead of her. But when she falls pregnant, she sees the opportunity to finish her studies and escape the constraints of her social background disappearing. With her final exams fast approaching and her belly growing, Anne resolves to act, even if she has to confront shame and pain, even if she must risk prison to do so.”

Anamaria Vartolomei appears in Happening by Audrey Diwan, an official selection of the Spotlight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by IFC Films.
Anamaria Vartolomei appears in Happening by Audrey Diwan, an official selection of the Spotlight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by IFC Films.

Happening is told from the perspective of Anne in 1.37 aspect ratio, along with several interior monologues with a musical accompaniment, to give the sense that the camera is one with the actress. “The camera was supposed to be Anne, not to look at Anne,” says Happening director Audrey Diwan. 

The film is adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by prize-winning author Annie Ernaux, who, after seeing the film adaptation, told Diwan, “You’ve made a truthful film.” She later went on to say in a letter, “Audrey Diwan had the courage to show it [women’s recourse before legal abortions] in all its brutal reality: the knitting needles, the probe introduced into the uterus by an abortionist. Only such disturbing images can make us aware of the horrors that were perpetrated on women’s bodies, and what a step backwards would mean.”

The French-language film has already been acquired for distribution by IFC Films. Happening will open theatrically on May 6, 2022. 

ABOUT DIRECTOR AUDREY DIWAN
Audrey Diwan is a filmmaker, author and screenwriter who has collaborated with Cédric Jimenez, Gilles Lellouche and Valérie Donzelli, among others. She made her feature film directing debut with Losing It, starring Celine Sallette and Pio Marmai. Her second film, Happening, won the Golden Lion in 2021 Venice Film Festival and will be released theatrically in the US by IFC Films in 2022. 


Read all of Salt Lake magazine’s 2022 Sundance reviews.

Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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