Judith Arcana laughs when I call her a freedom fighter, but she is. The poet, writer, and educator spent two years in the Jane Collective during the ’60s and ’70s, helping women procure safe abortions in an era where it was illegal and highly dangerous. She was eventually arrested and brought up on charges as one of the Abortion 7 before Roe v. Wade took hold in 1973. Since then the outspoken feminist has written about her experiences and now is out promoting a feature loosely based on her time working with the Janes. (You can read my review of the wonderful Ask for Jane.) Arcana sat down with Citizen Dame to discuss the film’s impact, the rose-colored glasses of the ’70s, and more.
What’s it like to talk about this movie in the wake of the Georgia bill?
Judith Arcana: Georgia is the current and truly one of the more horrific; the terrible situation [of] law-making attacks women and girls. You know because clearly you’ve been paying attention to this, that abortion healthcare is not available in more than 90% of the counties of this nation, so even though they don’t have laws declaring that abortion is murder and women can go to jail for forever – the idiocy about the heartbeat – even without that kind of stuff, it’s gone in most of the country. So those of us who think about this, either obsessively or whatever, in terms of political work, we know – and that includes you, obviously – that it’s already been happening. This is particularly egregious because of the ugliness of the way they’ve presented their anti-abortion position in the government of that state. But the result is really not so different from much of the rest of the country.
Have you seen the finished film?
I haven’t seen the final film, no. I was on the shoot [just] one day a couple years ago when they were working. I had a meeting with a lot of the people in the cast, a table read, where the featured characters were sitting around the table with their scripts. I was there to be a resource, because while they’re playing these characters they might have questions. What does this mean? Or what would this woman have been doing to make her say such a thing? That was pretty cool from my point of view. I’ve done a few things in my life but being in the movie biz has not been one of them.
I ask because at the end of the film there’s text that says the Janes worked so that women wouldn’t have to do this ever again. I definitely felt an emotional response reading that considering what’s happening.
It is great that even you, someone who had already been thinking about this, was affected that way by the film. I’m very happy to hear that! That’s wonderful.
It’s been great watching these movies come out, whether it’s this or Charlie Says, that are looking at the misogyny of the ’60s and just women’s issues in general.
The anti-abortion men are happy to discuss it. They’ve already got one movie made and another one nearly done, and those are going to be very interesting. What’s the little one that just came out a month or two ago?
Yes! It really draws the home team for them because it doesn’t have big stars [and] word is it’s not that great a movie. But the others, the Jon Voight movie and the other one, those are heavy hitters. Luckily, that’s also true here. Ask for Jane, this wonderful little indie made by these totally wonderful people that I got to meet and work with, is the first one out of the gate but there are two that are supposedly in the work that are huge budget; we’re talking big stars! Plus, there’s a new documentary in the works, plus there’s a short that just started shooting last month. And they, the little ones, they needed a Kickstarter to do it, but we’re talking serious talent here. There were three or four movies [before] that dealt with abortion, including Cider House Rules, and there was a British one that was good [Vera Drake], and a fabulous Romanian one, 4 Months, 3 Weeks. Then we got Obvious Child, that was after several years and I think it’s really good because its attitude is so not what people expect.
I always ask directors and actors if they plan to include politics in their features and they often say no. I know you believe all art is political so how do you look at their comments?
Maybe they really believe it. Yes, of course, I’ve heard and read that stuff too. For the most part, when there is obvious political context I simply don’t believe them. They say it because they think they have to; they’ll be in danger; they won’t get funding; maybe some theaters won’t even show it. On some level I don’t blame them. On another level they really piss me off because…they’re just afraid or being business conscious, or both. There’s just no time for that. There never was and if it’s ever been obvious, it’s obvious now. There’s no time for messing around about that kind of duplicity. That’s just not what’s happening. “I just want to tell a story.” Well why would you want to tell this story? Why do you want to tell Goldilocks and the Three Bears instead of The Three Little Pigs? What made you choose? Surely there is something in the world and inside of you – this is me speaking to them – that made you choose Goldilocks. What is it?
What was it like being on a female dominated set like this?
Well, I was only on set for one day but I certainly thought about exactly what you are asking me while I was there. There’s one scene I saw Rachel [Carey] direct…that I saw her do over and over and over again. The reason I saw that is they wanted me to do a one-second pop-up presence. So I’m actually in the scene; you can sort of see the side of my head. There I was, one of the people who was receiving direction even though I wasn’t really doing anything. Her choices were fascinating to me because what she could see once the shoot would begin; she’d set it up, tell people to be where she wanted them to be. But once it would start she might stop it because it wasn’t working the way it had worked in her imagination, or at least this is my analysis. Then she’d ask them to make a few changes…and that was incredibly interesting to me.
Also, there was a particular piece of action….a roomful of people at the front, and the door opens and a cop walks in. Talk about an attention-getter! Everyone in the room, the heads all swivel and Jane, who is working the front that day, and is actually played by Cait [Cortelyou] says, “Can I help you?” Which is a hilarious line under the circumstances. The cop is a totally nice guy. He’s actually there on an errand of good deeds. But I think she easily shot that a half a dozen times and the changes she made were not even necessarily understood by me but I could tell she was working toward something that she wanted as a presence. She certainly is not one of those people who would say there were no politics. The whole film was created because of sociopolitical environment in this country at this time, and they say so! That’s what they were about!
Is it good to see the rose-colored glasses come off about how the ’60s and ’70s have been portrayed in film?
I certainly am happy to lose the rose-colored glasses! That’s always true. Rose-colored glasses, or any glasses – and I speak as someone who’s been wearing glasses all her life – that are created to alter what one sees are obviously not what I would want. I think there was a lot of majorly important social change that happened, but what’s been represented, both in the newspapers as fact or on the TV news of the time or later made in to movies, that’s not what’s actually happening. If you go to an event and you know there’s likely to be silence because the crowd is so angry and the cops are in riot gear you see. You, personally, see what happened.
Now that doesn’t mean that everybody who’s there sees the same thing, but you have the vision in this metaphor we’re using. Whereas if you read about it. or you watch a movie about it, or you see it on TV, that’s somebody’s interpretation even if the person with the camera was there. I want us to be much more alert to that fact. After all, in terms of the film we’re talking about, it’s fiction. Rachel made this story up. She did a lot of major league homework, and the way I got involved here was she and Cait asked me a zillion questions. I said, “This is what I think. This is what I experienced. There were all these other women, they would answer differently.” I gave them stuff from long ago, newspaper articles of the time. But they made it up, and they’re the good guys! It’s complicated.