From the beginning, Dorothy Fadiman’s movies have been about light.
In 1966, following what she calls “an internal illumination,” the Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker began searching for a way to express what to her had been a spiritual experience.
She tried at first to write a book.
“I had a file cabinet filled with papers, research and essays from other people as well as my own writing,” she said Tuesday by phone from her San Francisco office. “But the words on paper just didn’t do it.”
When a filmmaker friend suggested she try telling her story with a camera, the idea clicked. In 1976, Fadiman debuted her first film, “Radiance: The Experience of Light.”
These days, Fadiman is still into illumination.
But it’s not the kind you might think. Now debuting her second in a planned three-part series on abortion, Fadiman wants to illuminate others about abortion. About its dark history, its pain and its legacy.
Mostly, though, she wants to bring into the light a subject that for so many years was kept in the shadows.
Fadiman’s film “From Danger to Dignity: The Fight for Safe Abortion” will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, 4340 W. Fort George Wright Drive. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door ($6 for students).
Fadiman, now 55, herself was one of the women whose story she tells. “From Danger to Dignity” opens with a shot of a woman being transported in an ambulance. Fadiman’s voice-over explains what it was like to be 22, a scholarship college student with a full schedule, working full time. And pregnant.
“I had no money and no partner and I really was desperate,” she said. Though she became deathly ill following an illegal abortion, she was luckier than many other women from that time.
She lived. Thousands didn’t.
“It started out that I wanted to tell my story and stories like mine,” Fadiman said. “But as I started working on it, I realized that there were all these underground networks, which I hadn’t known about. Amazing and complex and very interesting networks, including clergy, doctors, legislators, all people working to both get safe abortions illegally and try to change the laws. And so the idea grew.”
Fadiman’s first film in the series, “When Abortion Was Illegal: Untold Stories,” was nominated for a 1992 Academy Award.
It is a powerful 28-minute profile of several women who, for various reasons, underwent illegal abortions.
As one of them, Lana, says, “A woman who is unhappily pregnant will risk her life to stop that pregnancy. But later in life, when conditions have changed, she will happily risk her life to have a child.”
“It just creates the gestalt of the time in terms of the people who have lived through it and a few of the people who tried to help,” Fadiman said of “Untold Stories.” “But mainly you’re left with the feeling of desperation.”
“From Danger to Dignity” picks up the story with the first few efforts at abortion reform in the early 1960s and concludes with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973.
Included is the story of Sherri Chessen Finkbine, television’s “Romper Room” host, whose pregnancy was threatened by her having taken thalidomide - a prescription sedative of the time that caused severe birth defects.
Fearing that her fetus was damaged, a fear that turned out to be justified, Finkbine tried in vain to procure an abortion in the United States. She ended up undergoing the procedure in Sweden.
But Finkbine, who lost her job and endured years of death threats aimed not only at her but her four children, was more fortunate than most.
She had money and so was able to avoid the Mexican abortion mills or the often dangerous back-alley procedures. Neither was she tempted, as many women have been, to try and abort herself.
The film documents the desperation that resulted in, by some estimates, a half million illegal abortions a year. The desperation that, by some estimates, resulted in the annual deaths of as many as 5,000 women.
Fadiman knows how volatile the abortion issue is. The third and final film in her series, “The Fragile Promise of Choice,” which is in preproduction, attempts to deal with what she believes is the continued need for legal abortions. But, she said, it also portrays her “commitment to underscore the need for education and access to birth control for free for those people who cannot afford and would not otherwise use it.”
She is sensitive to those critics who would say abortion should not be used as a means of birth control.
“They’re right - to some extent,” she said. “It is our responsibility not to deny the truth of that but to say, ‘There is another way. If you educate people and if you give them birth control, there’s a far less likely chance that they’ll get pregnant or get AIDS.”’
MEMO: “From Danger to Dignity: The Fight For Safe Abortion” will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, 4340 W. Fort George Wright Drive. A VIP Reception for filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman will be held at 6 p.m. Tickets to the screening only are $10 at the door, $8 in advance ($6 for students). Tickets to the reception and screening are $20. Tickets are on sale at Planned Parenthood, the Eastern Washington University Women’s Center, Street Music, Mountain Gear and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane.
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