“Clearly, our competition is the abortion clinic. We’re actually on opposite sides of the street, you know,” Anne says. “Darkness and light, death and life. It doesn’t get more distinct than that.”
Anne stands before a screen as she speaks to a small group of listeners. They take notes, she walks in and out of the shadows cast by projected bullet points, for instance, “Attack the client” and “The abortion shopper.” She explains tactics for counseling a client: don’t say upfront that the center doesn’t actually perform abortions, but instead, engage her in conversation. Leave her alone in a room and after a while, she’ll begin to read what’s in front of her. “Since we’re the ones putting out what is read in the room,” Anne smiles, “We know it’s good information.”
Anne works for the pro-life Pregnancy Care Center, in Fort Pierce, Florida. It’s located across the street from the “competition,” A Woman’s World, run by Candace and her husband Arnold. Every day, the two centers do a kind of existential battle, each side sure it is right and the other is making grave, moral mistakes. While 12th & Delaware makes clear that these sides are at odds, it also allows Anne and Candace to speak for themselves. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a point of view.
Like Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s previous documentary Jesus Camp, this one comes at its central controversy with a striking sort of fearlessness. Premiering 2 August on HBO, 12th & Delaware presents its many subjects using tight, heartbreaking shots as well as medium-distance images, through windows with curtains, doubled doorways, from across streets and, in different registers to tilt or otherwise reframe the action. Each of these choices helps to shape what’s on screen, as well as responses and questions.
Just so, an elderly woman who regularly positions herself outside A Woman’s World to scold clients and workers (“You could help people so much more, you’re a nice lady” or again, “You’re the mother of a baby right now: God made you pregnant, it’s not a mistake”) appears in a sequence of shots evoking how frightening her self-certainty appears to someone else: first she approaches Arnold with a plastic fetus (“See the little baby!”), then you see her in grainy surveillance video from a camera inside the clinic, wound forward and then back, and at last she appears in looking close-up from below, her voice dropped out and the soundtrack filled with a whooshy wind effect and then pulsing strings as she follows a client in slow motion, waving a brochure so it looks threatening.
As striking as this moment is, it’s actually unlike most of the film, which observes rather than making such overt (visual) commentary. Though Anne sees her adversaries as making crass “sales pitches” to clients, she sees her efforts as honest, saving lives and souls. As she counsels an anxious 15-year-old, the camera cuts from one face to the other. Handed at a small box filled with plastic fetuses, sized according to weeks of development. Widline looks worried; Anne leaves the room and the camera hovers in the doorway to another office, so you seem to overhear Anne confide in her coworker, “I can’t get a good gauge if she’s even hearing me, she’s not even making a lot of eye contact.” The camera cuts back inside the office where Widline sits with her sister, silent. “She’s abortion-minded,” Anne says. “She’s not communicating at all, she just turns her head.”
When she hears from another client that she’s gone through with an abortion, Anne is visibly distressed, pacing and shaking her head. A shot of her tightly constrained mirror image cuts to a close-up as she earnestly asserts, “Even though it’s hard and I go through things like this, my situation makes me the perfect person to do something like this.” Single and without “responsibilities,” she feels ready for a long. hard struggle: “I’m at a point that I really do understand that this battle is just so vicious and that the evil is so powerful and so brutal that I really think God’s doing everything he can. It will end. I know that. I just don’t think it’s gonna be pretty.”
Both Anne and Candace appear in their offices repeatedly, keeping track of clients and schedules, and watching the other’s building from across the street. These reflected images suggest how much their activities affect one another just day to day. Candace sighs, “Evidently they don’t have a life,” noting that she and her coworkers go home to care for children and grandchildren, and don’t have time to stand on the other facility’s doorstep at all hours. “We’re not obsessed with them,” she says, even though the cost of their harassment is visible on her face and the bent of her shoulders. As she works each day to soothe and support the women who come to A Woman’s World, Candace is understandably exhausted.
Some clients are confused by the facilities’ names, a deliberate strategy, Candace notes; her clinic has been in place since 1991, in 1999, as soon as the chiropractor across the street put his building up for sale, it was off the market the next day: “It was them,” she sighs. Lamenting the tactics used by “crisis pregnancy centers,” which include lying to girls about how long they’ve been pregnant and showing them graphic, not necessarily true images of procedures, Candace is driven to near tears. “I just want to go over there and shake them people,” she says, “Why are you messing up these girls’ lives?”
Still, as the president of Pregnancy Care Center, Father Tom Euteneuer, sees it, he’s engaged in a battle of “dogmas,” and his enemy is influenced by the devil. Candace voices concern for the terror enacted by the anti-abortion forces, from threats to murder. As she goes through accounts of murdered abortion providers, including George Tillman, Candace reveals that her doctors take precautions. “They carry weapons, they wear bulletproof vests,” she observes sadly, adding, “If they quit or get killed, where’s the next doctor coming from?”
This sort of threat is embodied here by Tony, a bald-headed man in sunglasses who makes it his business to track down the identity of the abortionist whom Arnold drives to and from the clinic (the doctor rides with a sheet over his head). Tony drives to a parking lot where he anticipates seeing the doctor dropped off, the camera pointed up at his profile, silhouetted against the Florida sunshine. When Arnold’s car pulls up, Tony nods. “I’ve been talking to a small circle of people,” he says, about how to disseminate the man’s identity: right now, he’s thinking of a billboard. “He just performed abortions and then he’s going home and being affectionate to his wife and his children,” Tony says. “That tears me up.”
Everyone in 12th & Delaware is torn up. Its subjects’ obvious pain makes the film’s own show of rationality and equanimity—along with its breaks—all the more stunning. With positions so utterly incongruent, with no apparent compromise, the sides can only continue to stand off.