“Vessel”: A documentary and a movement

The new documentary “Vessel” leaves the audience inspired, furious, and perhaps above all, gobsmacked with the profile of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, a Dutch abortion provider and all around revolutionary. Gomperts first gained notoriety in 1999, when she created a mobile clinic aboard a ship and sailed to countries where abortion remains illegal. She aimed to reduce the number of unsafe abortions and unwanted pregnancies by providing sexual health services, including early medical abortions, in international waters. Because the ship flew under the flag and laws of its home country, The Netherlands, the team could provide mifepristone* and misoprostol** (the medicines, when taken together, cause an abortion) to women within the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy.

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts aboard the ship as it arrives in Spain (image courtesy of vesselthefilm.com)

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts aboard the ship as it arrives in Spain (image courtesy of vesselthefilm.com)

The documentary highlights the gumption and resources needed to create such a novel (and enviable) social enterprise. When the ship finally takes to sea under the moniker Women on Waves, protesters and media await them at the shore. At nearly every port, authorities and politicians ensured that the ship struggled to dock, stay, and allow local women to board. Yet, as word got out of the ship’s arrival, the team received hundreds of phone calls requesting appointments and information.

The first half of the film follows the ship’s journeys and the mission of relaying the message that medical abortion with misoprostol (with or without mifepristone) gives women the possibility to safely do medical abortions themselves. This option needed a platform, and so Women on Waves transitioned from the open sea to focusing on empowering women how to do a medical abortion by distributing information through the internet, stealth advertising, and by supporting the creation of safe abortion telephone hotlines. If women could not come to the ship, thought Gomperts, she would directly deliver them the pills.

The latter half of the film follows what arose from this experience: Women on Web. Women had already figured out that taking misoprostol, available as an ulcer medication, could induce a miscarriage. Misoprostol was known for being safe, but women around the world kept asking: How do we get it?

So, along with the website, Gomperts and her team launched campaigns around the world—in Portugal, Ecuador, Morocco, and more—where they advertised the information hotline and how women could procure a safe abortion. One scene in the film plays out like a heist as the team schemes to raise a banner advertising their contact number from a statue of the Virgin Mary. Throughout, the calls for help kept coming, as did the backlash.

But Gomperts did not let backlash, or the fear of any such judgment or consequence, hold her back.

Image courtesy of vesselthefilm.com

Image courtesy of vesselthefilm.com

One of the biggest takeaways from “Vessel”, besides the impressive central character, is how much fun the team appeared to be having on the boat and on the ground when planning covert advertisement campaigns. It was a refreshing reminder that empowerment should be enjoyable. Helping women receive normal medical care should feel good.

Although not explored directly in the film, Dr. Gomperts refuses to work with and in the United States. In previous interviews, she explains why she does not mail pills to women in the United States. We know all too well that although abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973, women’s access to abortion is constantly restricted by the political and religious right via TRAP laws and other legislation.

Gomperts puts the onus on us—advocates in the United States—to push for legislative change and until then, to provide medical care any way possible. She challenges women’s groups to find reliable sources for misoprostol pills and to refer women or deliver to women in order to administer safely at home. She does not want to endanger her own work, and so she calls out the abortion rights groups in the United States to rise up to the challenge of our time.

Gomperts maintained throughout the film that her work is not a personal mission, but a response to a need. She never intended to be an activist, but a doctor who alleviated suffering.

To wit, when grilled by the media about her personal life (“Have you ever had an abortion?”) she  replies,

“Are you going to ask somebody working for Amnesty International if they’ve been tortured, no, come on, this is about whether or not women have basic human rights” […] “you cannot force any women to go through an unwanted pregnancy… it’s a humiliation, it’s a torture for them.”

Although she did not intend to be an activist or an anecdote, Dr. Gomperts is an ally worth emulating. She saw a need, and set out to meet that need. “Vessel” is essential viewing for abortion rights workers in the United States. May we address the needs we see and meet them, so that when women need an abortion, they do not have to rely upon obscure interventions, but upon equal, affordable, basic healthcare systems already in place.

Thank you to The Nightingale Cinema in Chicago for hosting the screening. See where else the film is screening here or watch on Video on Demand platforms or iTunes now!

*Also known as Mifeprex; RU-486

**Also known as Cytotec


Working as a Female Critic

In honor of International Women’s Week, we’re spotlighting the experiences of our staff members, supporters and constituents. Today, Ci3 Communications Manager Lauren Whalen discusses her experiences as a Chicago theater critic.

Here’s the thing about female critics: there really aren’t that many.

Go to any film or theater preview or opening and look in the press section. Chances are, you’ll see mostly men, with the occasional woman trying hard not to look too out of place. Often, male critics are loudly pontificating their opinions to anyone who will listen. As a woman, I’m more careful. Not that I’m not confident in my reviews, but I’ve experienced the consequences.

When I’m not at Ci3, I work as a critic. I’ve reviewed film since 2009, theater since 2011. I’ve grown accustomed to being outnumbered, to having my opinions ignored, pushed aside or downright insulted. And occasionally, disgruntled audience members, cast, staff and random readers with bones to pick, get personal.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I’ve always had a passion for movies, and I’ve been a performer since I was four years old. Every time I step into a cinema, a playhouse, or a church basement, I strive to keep an open mind, to avoid being one of Those Critics who hate everything they see and choose verbal snark over thoughtful critique, to make my voice as a woman heard. It’s not always easy.

In March 2013, I reviewed a show I didn’t like. Let’s be honest: I couldn’t stand it. I found the dialogue trite, the comedy manufactured, and the heroine an absolute twit. Moreover, I felt the show was written with someone like me (a single woman in her early thirties) in mind, which I found supremely insulting. I love a fun romantic comedy, but this show came across as patronizing, reducing young women to little more than whiny parasites whose only purpose in life was to find a man to take care of them. The playwright was male, and I imagined he’d seen one too many Katherine Heigl movies and made the assumption that this is what all women were like.

Never the Bridesmaid

Image: broadwayworld.com

After my review was published, it was the number one-viewed piece on the website and received over 40 comments. Go on, read some. You’ll see that my family is insulted, that I’m accused of trying to speak for my entire gender (when I clearly state in the review that I’m not speaking for my entire gender), and that people on the Internet can get very nasty. I also received an email from the lead actress, something that hasn’t happened before or since in almost three years of reviewing theater.

Of course, it’s not a surprise that people on the Internet can get nasty. But it’s astounding how many of these comments get personal. What does my family have to do with my opinions on a play? Why were they brought into this?

Also, this was not the first time I’ve encountered a barrage of negativity from one of my reviews.

Male critics aren’t immune to loud arguments from readers. In the digital age when anonymous commenting is so easy, no one gets away clean. However, female critics are especially vulnerable. A fellow theater writer has had her weight insulted (because we all know that one’s size is directly related to her opinions). What shook me the most about this particular review was the general feel I got from the negative comments: “This is a play about and for women. You’re a woman, so therefore you should like it and you are less of a woman because you don’t.”

It’s been almost a year, and I continue to review. I keep hoping to see more female faces in the press section. I know my opinions and my voice matter. But I still ask myself: if I were male, would my reviews be questioned so much? And sadly, I think I know the answer.