Diana Whitten's documentary Vessel follows nearly a decade in the working life of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, founder of Women on Waves, an activist initiative that capitalizes on open water laws to bring abortion and contraceptive services to women in need. Whitten travels with Gomperts and her crew from country to country across Africa and Europe, where she faces threatening resistance from local governments. We spoke to Whitten about the shifting landscape in women's rights and the subjective stance in activism.
You began following the Women on Waves initiative in the early 2000s. As the film primarily concerns resistance to the movement, do you recall any moments of sea change, wherein a larger society embraced the cause, outside of women in need?
The most challenging message in Vessel for some audiences is that women around the world, in a growing, decentralized movement, for years have been self-inducing abortion using pills, regardless of laws. When I first started working on the film, this was a widely unknown practice, especially here in the States. Due to recent restrictions in red states – Texas, for example – American women have lost all access to comprehensive reproductive health care and are turning to their Mexican sisters for information about these pills, sidestepping the “abortion debate” and using these pills themselves. The world teaches us that this use will only increase. In this way, the landscape has changed dramatically since I first started working on the film, and the story has become much more relevant here at home.
Dr. Gomperts is either reluctant to discuss her personal history with abortion or very much willing to do so. As an activist, do you think it's important to place your cause in subjective light or simply a practical one?
One of my favorite moments in the film is when a reporter asks Rebecca if she has had an abortion, and she responds, “[These activists] are doing this with their hearts, and not because they had an abortion. Are you going to ask someone that works for Amnesty International if they have been tortured?” Access to abortion is a basic human right that has been buried in stigma; and while normalizing it is essential to securing safe access and good laws, it’s a personal call if you want to go public with your personal medical history. Moreover, one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime--it is a very common procedure with as many back-stories as there are women--and thus a difficult thing to generalize.
Because the film covers a lot of ground, both temporally and geographically, did you face any particular challenges in capturing what you wanted?
One challenge was to incorporate into the film representation of the women helped by these activists while maintaining their privacy. Women on Waves communicates primarily with women via email and hotlines, and after some experimentation, I decided that using their letters and voice mails was an interesting mechanism to include the women’s voices without exposing their identities. Toward the end of the film, when the Women on Waves ship “lands” and the activists are working more directly, in person, with women, the film does the same.