Director Tracy Droz Tragos (Abortion: Stories Women Tell) is out with a new documentary about the fight to preserve abortion rights, this one entitled Plan C. It premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, but I only managed to see it at SXSW 2023, where I finally reviewed it. I also spoke with Tragos at the festival, and below you will find a transcription of that conversation, edited for length and clarity. The film follows Francine Coeytaux and Elisa Wells—founders of Plan C, an organization that facilitates the spread of information on how to obtain RU486, commonly known as the abortion pill—along with their allies. It’s well worth the watch in this post-Roe v. Wade world.
Hammer to Nail: When you made Abortion: Stories Women Tell, did you envision yourself making another documentary about abortion in the not-so-distant future?
Tracy Droz Tragos: No, I did not envision doing that, and making that film from 2014 to 2016 was an intense experience being embedded in that clinic and seeing day after day the hoops that folks had to jump through to get care, and then the final insult to injury, passing a gauntlet of protestors telling them that they were going to hell. I mean, it was intense. That stuck with me. And so I would not have expected to dive right into another film about the same subject. But when Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court, I felt compelled to look into what folks were doing to plan for if Roe would be overturned.
HtN: Speaking of the gauntlet of protestors that the women have to go through in order to get an abortion, did you or your crew ever feel as if you were under any sort of threat of violence while making the film?
TDT: Well, no, because during the making of it, we were primarily in people’s homes. I mean, there was one clinic that we visited in Alabama, and yes, there were protestors there, but they weren’t impeding the entrance to the clinic. But the paradigm shift with abortion medication and online provisioning and having it delivered to people’s homes is that it is much more private and much more discreet than accessing a clinic. I mean, of course, in a perfect world, both should be accessible and private, but that’s not the world we’re living in. The fact is that this option is available to people and that it felt much safer. And at the same time, the providers and the people that we were filming, they are taking risk. But we hope they’re safe and we hope this film will do nothing to impede their work in any kind of way.
HtN: Well, they all agreed to be in the film.
HtN: How did that whole process work of figuring out how to put people in the film the way they wanted to, and what kinds of distortions did you use?
TDT: It was very, very, very important that we not jeopardize the work because we really wanted to amplify it. We wanted audiences to know that there were trustworthy people who were coming together to do it. So we showed to the extent that people were comfortable having us meet their partners or see their dogs. That was important because these are real people who were stepping up in a real time of national crisis.
But those who were doing things in more of a legal gray area, we definitely did not want to reveal their identities. And so we talked about whether we were just filming their hands or a portion of their eyes, or whether we were distorting them completely, and whether the blurring effect could be pieced back together or not, and the double distortions with the voices so that it couldn’t just be some filter that could then reveal the sound of the real voice. We also disguised locations for some people. So the exterior of where we were in the film is not the real exterior for where we ended up. So we took those precautions, and I hope those folks are safe.
HtN: Using movie magic. The reason I was asking the question is because I often wonder if, for the people who are showing their faces, but not their full names, just allowing “Dr. R,” for example, how much of a mask is that, really? I guess it helps online trolls not be able to easily find them.
TDT: People participated to the extent that they could, and they took their own risk calculations. We have one of the doctors who appears with only a portion of her face. She has done press with a full face, but still using Jane Doe as her name. I can’t say whether that’s the right choice, but that’s their choice. And also, we all share a common why. We wanted to get the message out that this is an option and that this work is happening.
HtN: Right. Beyond Francine and her co-founder, Elisa, who obviously were going to be in the film, how did you go about recruiting other subjects?
TDT: It’s often a matter of one person leading to another person, leading to another person, and Francine is very much connected to all of the folks doing this work. It would be an introduction sometimes through her, sometimes my own reaching out to say what I was doing. Because I’d made the previous film there was also some built-in trust, and I think that made navigating this maybe a little bit easier right now than it would otherwise be. I would also say that this film was additionally complicated to make because we were filming during COVID, and so that just added a different layer of when you’re asking someone to be in a film and to come to their home.
HtN: It’s also potentially another easy way to mask faces.
TDT: Well, that’s true. As the case of one of the people we spent time with. She said, “Okay, well, I’m just going to keep my mask on the whole time.” I was like, “Fair enough.”
HtN: That makes perfect sense. I like that reunion of so many of them that we get towards the end. Was that something you’d always planned, or you just went with it since it was happening?
TDT: Well, no. I mean, it was something that the group planned, so I didn’t plan it, but I always was excited about the fact that this was going to be happening, because they had been operating as a virtual group. And I had met so many of them, but they had not met each other. It was a very strange place to be. The original meeting was supposed to be in January, but that got canceled. And probably it was better that it happened when it happened, which was in August of 2022, because it was after Roe fell. And so there was a lot more substantive conversation about reacting to that.
HtN: Now, when you started making the film, you might have suspected—because you said you wanted to do it when Brett Kavanaugh was appointed—that Roe was going to fall.
HtN: So did you have a plan that was then altered? In documentary filmmaking, you have to go with where the story goes. But you might have had a different plan for your film that was then affected by the fall of Roe.
TDT: Yeah. Well, it was a little more of a slow burn at the beginning. The paradigm shift of telemedicine and online provisioning and mail orders seemed very far off in 2019 when I started filming. And I thought, well, this is going to be maybe more about this disruptor who is never going to gain traction with some of her ideas. But when COVID happened, none of us predicted that telemedicine became much more embraced and understood, and they were able to actually move very quickly on their idea of how this could work and really gain acceptance and momentum in a way that I could never have predicted.
HtN: It’s interesting how the pandemic actually set up these frameworks for things that you wouldn’t think of coming out of a public health emergency. I’m in education, and we’ve now become much more used to virtual conferencing, which is a lot more convenient. Many times you can bring guests into the classroom who live in far-away places. And then in telemedicine, it actually probably really helped advance things.
TDT: Absolutely. It did so in a way that I think the mainstream, brick-and-mortar clinics didn’t see coming, but obviously where we are now, they’re already disrupted.
HtN: Do you have a next project in mind?
TDT: Oh, I’ve been working on a follow-up to a former documentary of mine, Rich Hill, for many years now, and so that’s still in the works. But I will say, coming off of this and being an independent documentary filmmaker, it’s a matter of cobbling it together. And it’s not easy right now. So I have to get my footing, my grounding, or have somebody hire me to do a doc about a celebrity, which seems to be the big thing these days.
HtN: Well, good luck in whatever comes next.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 SXSW Film Festival; Tracy Droz Tragos; Plan C documentary movie review