Documenting danger and dignity
Publication Date: Friday Mar 17, 1995

Documenting danger and dignity

Menlo Park filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman premieres second documentary on abortion rights; Sarah Weddington to speak

by Sally Richards

It's 7:30 a.m. and filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman has already been in her Menlo Park studio for three hours. It's only weeks until the New York City premiere of "From Danger to Dignity," her second film in a series about abortion rights in the United States, and she is looking at her watch as if counting down the hours until the film has to be edited and in the can.

Weaving together parallel stories, "From Danger to Dignity" charts the evolution of underground networks that helped women find safe abortions outside the law, and the intensive efforts by activists and legislators to decriminalize abortion.

"This film is not about the pain and suffering women endured," says Fadiman, 55, an intensely focused Menlo Park filmmaker. "It's about the compassionate people who risked their own lives to help them." Conversely, her first documentary on the subject, "When Abortion Was Illegal," was a candid 28-minute film featuring first-person accounts from women who obtained illegal abortions. "When Abortion Was Illegal" was nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Shorts category and took the Gold Medal Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1994.

"From Danger to Dignity," co-produced by Fadiman's Concentric Media production company and KTEH, San Jose's public television station, will get its local premiere Monday, March 20, at Spangenberg Theatre at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. The guest speaker will be Sarah Weddington, the attorney who successfully argued Roe vs. Wade before the Supreme Court.

The Monday benefit screening is one of several scheduled for cities across the country. Some of the proceeds will benefit Planned Parenthood, and a portion will go back into the the kitty to finance the third movie in Fadiman's abortion-rights series. "The Fragile Promise of Choice," will chronicle the growing dangers for providers of legal abortions.

"The power of these films is in the power of the people telling their stories," Fadiman says. "The irony of this situation is that although it (the series) is about the past, it's happening again. I have two daughters and both of them know someone who has died in the current situation. One of them knows someone who died in Boston (in the recent clinic shooting), and my other daughter knows someone who tried to induce a miscarriage by drinking pennyroyal tea. It turned out to be toxic and she died. The geographical and parental consent restrictions that states have in place are driving women into the back alleys again."

The back alleys are something about which Fadiman has a personal knowledge.

"I had a traumatic, life-threatening experience when I was a grad student," she says. It was 1962. "I paid $600 for an illegal abortion, was taken to Reno, taken to a motel room and blindfolded so that I never knew the face of the person who gave me the abortion. Within hours, I was admitted into the intensive care unit at Stanford Hospital. I think Stanford decided to spare me the interrogation because I was a grad student, and they didn't want word to get out. I had a fever of 105 degrees."

Fadiman didn't speak of the abortion--to anyone--for almost three decades.

"I can't remember discussing it until 1991," she says. "There was no reason to. There was so much pain and humiliation around it. But as soon as I had something to say, I said it. I cried for the first time."

Then came "When Abortion Was Illegal." Although the project started as a look at reproductive rights and the history of abortion, the film evolved into a series of personal testaments.

"What I realized, what I didn't even know until I got into the project, is that this is a virtually untold chapter in women's history. I'm making these films because I feel that it's important that this current generation understand the past. I see not only complacency out there, but also ignorance. We're at a time when many people are threatened and feel helpless to do anything, and people need to know the history behind the issue."

Fadiman has been making films steadily for 18 years. One of her first documentaries, "World Peace is a Local Issue" (1983)--shown in both houses of Congress and broadcast on PBS stations around the country--came out of a Palo Alto City Council meeting to which 300 people showed up to speak their minds about the issue of making the city a nuclear-free zone.

"That film was something that happened in my own community," she says. "I just picked up my camera and recorded the event."

Her 1990 documentary, "Why Do These Kids Love School?" a look at child-centered education, received kudos from educators and critics alike.

Filming at her daughters' Peninsula School in Menlo Park, as well as schools throughout the United States, Fadiman endeavored to show what in American education was going right.

After settling down from the flurry of activity surrounding the upcoming screenings of her current film, Fadiman will continue her work on her third and final film in the series. "The Fragile Promise of Choice" is scheduled for release in 1996.

"From Danger to Dignity" premiere with speech by Sarah Weddington

When: 7 p.m. March 20

Where: Spangenberg Theatre, 780 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto

Cost: $25 general; $10 students and seniors

Information: 321-5533 

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