News Abortion

Filmmakers Use Virtual Reality to Depict Abortion Clinic Protests

Sofia Resnick

Filmmakers have combined real documentary footage from clinic protests with 360-degree video technology and computer-generated imagery.

The day after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could determine the future of abortion access, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) invited reporters to virtually experience what many people seeking abortion in the United States face: near-constant protests from anti-choice activists outside of clinics.

Facing anti-choice protesters is so built into the fabric of obtaining an abortion in the United States that many reproductive health clinics design their parking lots and security systems with anti-choice protesters in mind. Clinics hire volunteers known as clinic escorts to walk patients from their cars to the clinic door, to try to prevent patients from feeling intimidated or harassed by anti-choice activists.

Last week at its office in Washington, D.C., PPFA representatives handed reporters virtual reality goggles to watch a screening of the film Across the Line. Producers are calling the project a “virtual reality hybrid documentary.”

PPFA last year teamed up with Emblematic Group’s CEO Nonny de la Peña, who has been dubbed the “godmother of virtual reality,” as well as Brad Lichtenstein of 371 Productions and Custom Reality Services and Jeff and Kelli Fitzsimmons of Custom Reality Services, to produce an approximately five-minute virtual documentary that shows what one woman in particular, and many people generally, have experienced when visiting a reproductive health center.

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The filmmakers have taken what they say is real documentary audio and video footage from abortion clinic protests and used virtual reality, 360-degree video technology, and computer-generated imagery (CGI) to bring a patient’s experience to life. Jeff and Kelli Fitzsimmons told Rewire at the screening that, as far as they know, Across the Line is the first “hybrid documentary” to blend all of these technologies and storytelling forms.

Kelli Fitzsimmons said she believes these immersive technologies will help tap into viewers’ sense of “empathy” and “self-compassion,” by placing viewers directly in the shoes of patients trying to enter a health center to obtain an abortion.

One puts on the goggles and is dropped into a brightly lit room in a reproductive health clinic, where a young woman sitting clothed on an examination table appears to be upset. Because the film was shot with a 360-degree camera, the viewer can turn around to see and hear everything in the room, including the attending health provider, who asks the patient if she is uncertain about her decision to have an abortion.

The patient says she is not.

Soon the viewer is transported minutes into the past, into a car. Along the road, several abortion protesters hold signs, some of which depict what are supposed to be aborted fetuses. A man approaches the car and tries to convince the woman to follow him to a so-called crisis pregnancy center, designed to dissuade pregnant people from seeking abortion care, often using misinformation. It now becomes clear what upset the young woman.

The producers told Rewire that this scene is based on a real experience, adapted from real audio and video footage outside of a reproductive health clinic in Aurora, Illinois.

The third and final scene is more fictionalized. The viewer is the person trying to enter the reproductive health clinic, walking toward the waiting arms of a clinic escort. A gaggle of protesters appears, and some of them begin shouting insults at the viewer, like “jezebel” and “whore.”

Jeff Fitzsimmons said the audio used in this scene is real, but was stitched together from various locations to represent a composite portrayal of what some people face when they try to obtain abortion care. It is not necessarily the experience of all patients.

Molly Eagan, vice president of Planned Parenthood Patient and Employee Experience at PPFA, told Rewire in an email that each person’s recorded comment in Across the Line is from “a unique person recorded from a different part of the country.”

She said the footage was taken at health centers and from anti-choice protests across the country.

“Planned Parenthood was interested in finding a new way to help people better understand the harassment that many people face when seeking health care,” Eagan said, explaining the genesis of this project. “We brought the … filmmakers together to collaborate on a story using both CGI and 360 video, and they were excited to work on a film that helped tell this story. Across the Line is part of ongoing efforts by Planned Parenthood and other sexual and reproductive health organizations to reduce stigma and change the conversation around safe and legal abortion.”

PPFA served as the executive producer on this project and consulted on the film’s script. “Planned Parenthood helped support the film, which was funded by a range of individual donors,” Eagan said.

“Once we began to research and compile nonfiction footage and audio for this piece, we saw a consistent pattern of intimidation and provocation by protesters,” de la Peña said in a PPFA press release. “By putting the audience on scene, it offers an intimate and visceral understanding of what thousands of women face when they seek care at a Planned Parenthood. This virtual reality piece allows viewers the harrowing experience of trying to make it ‘across the line.'”

A former Newsweek correspondent and documentary filmmaker, de la Peña is considered a pioneer in “immersive journalism.” Some of her other immersive projects have involved domestic violence, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a mortar explosion in Syria, and the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Across the Line premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Eagan said that in the coming months, PPFA will show Across the Line at other film festivals, and community and theatrical screenings across the country. The nonprofit is working on ways to distribute the film to a larger audience. Eagan said there will soon be a downloadable format for people to watch the film on their mobile devices using Google Cardboard and other tools.

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