My battles over abortion film, by Northern Ireland movie-maker
A Northern Ireland film-maker’s controversial movie about a late-term abortion doctor has taken more than $3.5m since it opened in the US in mid-October.
Gosnell: The Trial Of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, is the first feature from husband and wife duo — Co Donegal-born Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer from Beragh, Co Tyrone — who are now based in Los Angeles.
The contentious subject matter and the film’s pro-life leaning mean, the couple say, that a mainly liberal mainstream Press and the US movie establishment have ignored their success.
In telling the story of Kermit Gosnell, it tackles territory that Hollywood has long been squeamish about.
Gosnell was a Philadelphia doctor and abortion provider who was convicted of murdering three infants who were born alive during attempted abortion procedures, and of murdering one woman during an abortion procedure. He was also convicted of dozens of counts of providing abortions far past the legal time limit in Philadelphia.
The film, directed by Nick Searcy, who plays Gosnell’s lawyer, Mike Cohan, leans heavily on a pro-life viewpoint and indicts the mainstream media for losing interest in the Gosnell case after a grand jury report.
During the trial a journalist’s picture of the virtually empty Press section went viral on Twitter, drawing national attention to the virtual media blackout and bringing the case back into the spotlight.
“Nobody wanted to say anything,” the investigating police officer sums up as she grasps the enormity of the situation. “Nobody wanted to know.”
That line expresses the central theme — which is not so much that abortion is evil, but that the reason the horrors of Gosnell’s clinic were allowed to continue year after year is that everyone wanted to look the other way.
McElhinney and McAleer have also been vocal about their private views on the subject; during the abortion referendum they co-wrote a piece for The Irish Times in which they said that the making of the movie had brought them from a feeling of “disinterest” about the subject, to “negative feelings about the procedure”.
It’s also this emphasis in the storytelling that has seen the film described as “law and order for Christians” and of preaching to the right-wing masses on the issue of abortion.
“Distributors told us ‘it’s a great movie but it’s too controversial’,” McAleer explained on a call from Los Angeles, where he and McElhinney are heavily promoting the movie.
“Facebook blocked our ads. The New York Times had agreed to carry a quarter-page advertisement for the movie, but advertising executives demanded the ad be changed to misrepresent the facts after facing pressure from colleagues in the film section.
“We had to use crowdfunding to fund the film. For context, we made a movie a few years ago on fracking, which would also have had what was perceived as a conservative viewpoint, but it was covered across many outlets. People are very one-sided when it comes to abortion. They have had a rom-com where the couple bonded over having (an abortion) and that was fine, but this kind of approach is not as welcome.”
While Gosnell is their first scripted feature (they co-wrote the screenplay), McAleer and McElhinney have long made hay out of baiting American liberals.
In 2009 McAleer challenged Al Gore at a public meeting of environmental journalists and was shouted down and escorted out of the room. Since then he and his wife have continued to build their profile in the US, regularly appearing on networks such as CNN and Fox News.
Their 2013 documentary Fracknation, about “the truth behind the search for natural gas”, raised the hackles of film critics and environmentalists.
They say that the timing of Gosnell, at the time of the furore surrounding Brett Kavanaugh being appointed to the US Supreme Court (and the concomitant danger to the seminal abortion precedent, Roe v Wade), is purely coincidental.
“We’ve been trying to get the film out for three years,” McElhinney explained. “And that makes the refusal of much of the media to review the film all the more ludicrous”, added McAleer.
“Here you have the hottest political topic in America and it’s the subject of a successful movie like this, and still they won’t touch it — it’s pathetic, really.”
The couple say that working together is rewarding, even if there are “many, shall we say, frank discussions” on how their work will proceed, McElhinney added.
Amid all the controversy, she is heartened by the reaction they have seen to the film.
“The astonishing thing that happens is that people stay until the end of the credits, in complete silence. We’ve been to so many movies, including last night, where people get up the minute the movie ends, so we’re taking that as a good sign.”
Gosnell goes on general release on this side of the Atlantic next year.
Co-Tyrone-born Phelim McAleer (46) now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Ann McElhinney. The documentary film-maker previously worked as a newspaper journalist for publications such as The Sunday Times.
His films include Not Evil Just Wrong, Mine Your Own Business and FrackNation, one of the most successful documentaries ever to use crowdfunding.