The Human Rights Watch Film Festival’s opening night film came from HBO Documentary Films, showing again why they’re possibly the best producers of nonfiction film currently in the business. This powerful piece of work is by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, whose 2006 film Jesus Camp still stands as one of the great documents of the modern evangelical movement. Taking place entirely on one street in the town of Fort Pierce, Florida, 12th and Delaware tracks two utterly opposed viewpoints and the people who inhabit them: an abortion clinic and a pro-life center, located just across the street from each other.
Divided almost equally in half between the battling camps, Ewing and Grady’s film opens on the pro-life protestors, who pace in front of the clinic all day every day. They wave provocative signs (many covered with gruesome photos), pray the rosary, and try to talk the young women entering the clinic into changing their minds. The protesters are mostly older women, with one frightening exception: a bullet-headed biker type barely able to control his rage who seems on the verge of showing up on the evening news.
Their clinic, the Pregnancy Care Center, purposefully looks like the abortion clinic, the aim being to entice women inside with free ultrasounds and then convince them to bring the baby to term. The woman who heads up that operation has a missionary-like zeal that crosses the line into sheer irresponsibility, giving inaccurate information about birth control and telling one woman with an abusive partner, “For all you know, the baby changes him.”
Ewing and Grady stay above the fray, though, filming everything with a scrupulous lack of judgment. This becomes particularly clear when they present the workers in the abortion clinic, a husband-and-wife team who seem besieged. Though caricatured by their opponents as money- and ideology-crazed death merchants, they come off as more workaday than fervent. The two appear more interested in staying alive (they have to drive the abortion doctor into a closed garage hiding under a towel) and making sure that women are getting abortions for the right reason than just making a buck. But even here, the filmmakers doesn’t play heroes and villains.
A potently dramatic tale of clashing ideologies where the middle ground appears to have vanished entirely, 12th and Delaware lets everyone have their say and refuses to take sides, even for a moment. It’s a model of objective journalistic reportage that sadly seems to becoming all the more rare.