As a filmmaker myself, I am always interested in how fellow women directors use their passion to explore current issues, especially those that affect us as women and as mothers. Jo Ardinger’s seven year journey to bring the very contemporary but often under explored issues of fetal rights with the rise of the personhood movement boldly and effectively interrogates the issues. Read more to find out how she and her team sought to uncover these stories and concerns.
ZD: Thank you for your time, Jo. I know that you and your team are very busy getting ready for your World Premiere at DOCNYC! Personhood is an amazing documentary and I wish you all the best with it.
JA: You know, it’s just that means a lot, I appreciate that. It’s been a really long road, seven years in the making and I see that you’re a filmmaker too, so you know what this is about. I’m looking forward to seeing some of your films, you have a really long list of films, and this is my first time directing.
I’m just so incredibly… I’m really moved by the response the film has had so far and, you know, the fact that we’re getting this incredible premiere at Doc NYC! New York City is so perfect, because there’s so many Reproductive Justice Advocates working in the city and that’s where so many organizations like National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) are based, so it’s exciting to be in the city for the premiere. So, this is Lynn Paltrow’s territory; Farah Diaz-Tello and Sara Ainsworth were both still working with NAPW when I interviewed them. They’ve both since gone on to another organization If/When/How and they’re doing the same incredible work there. But yeah, NAPW is how I got introduced to Tammy.
ZD: Yes, wow, you lead right into my first question, how did you find this incredible woman, Tammy Loertscher, one of your main protagonists?
JA: It isn’t easy with this subject matter to find people willing to come on film, and NAPW had started working with Tammy on her case. They had gotten a call from her mother Marge from Wisconsin saying please help, my daughter is in jail. They came on board and helped coordinate a lot of her legal assistance. They talked to her about the documentary because they knew that I wanted to have a personal story at the center of the film. Tammy and I had a long phone conversation and I know that she was deciding whether or not I was a trustworthy person for her story. After going through what she did, it really shatters your trust for other people and for institutions. I’m still in awe of her openness and her willingness to put herself out there, because there’s so much stigma attached to what happened to her.
Not only just the fact that they’re the subject of alleged drug abuse, but also the jail stigma and then the accusation of mistreating a child, or all of those things are really difficult to put out there. Tammy never wavered from her goal of saying I want this to help other women and that just kept driving me through this whole process.
ZD: Take me back to the beginning though. How did you get interested in the subject in the first place?
JA: After the 2010 elections, there was just this unprecedented Onslaught against Reproductive Rights and there were all these incremental laws being passed. This motivated Dawn Porter to make her film Trapped, which is such an incredible film. I was sitting in bed one night watching Rachel Maddow and I saw a segment on the personhood ballot initiative in Mississippi in 2011. I’d never heard of this fetal personhood thing. Right then, as Rachel can do, she really broke it down and it was absolutely terrifying to me as a mother. You know, I have a daughter who’s 25 now, but when I started this film she was in her late teens and, you know, I have friends who are still having children, so it was really terrifying to think about all the implications.
I got really interested in it, because it felt very different than the incremental, you know, attack on women’s access, but this was like a wholesale ban with no exceptions. And so that fascinated me. And at first my focus was more on that total abortion ban aspect of it and how it would affect other things like in vitro fertilization. It was just so broad-reaching I couldn’t believe it! I started thinking further down the line and read articles about El Salvador, which is a personhood nation and how women were being arrested after suspicious miscarriages and so the idea was, oh wow, you know if we go down this road, that’s the future in our country.
Wow, but then I found all these articles that said this is actually happening already, years and years, pregnant women who had no intention of ending their pregnancies were running into laws that were giving fetuses separate rights and, I mean, I was just blown away. We purport to be a country about freedom and liberty and all of that and we know that that trickles into different populations in this country differently, but this is so much the antithesis of what we stand for. The question of giving something inside someone else’s body separate rights, really? I mean, it’s hard for people to wrap their brains around. There are so many incredible films especially like Trapped that dealt with abortion and to me this was an area that is really still pretty unknown.
It hits the news and then it kind of shuffles away and I think the fact that this was operating under this very big shadow of this black-and-white abortion debate, you know, everyone’s in their camp. I thought this was a really great… a way to get people to think about this… just incredible implications of giving fetuses separate rights. I wanted to focus on the criminalization and targeting of pregnant women. And, I mean, this is the story.
I don’t know if you know many of the stories, but they’re really shocking. A woman who fell down the stairs and a nurse says she might have done this on purpose: she spent time in jail before the charges were dropped and it’s pretty incredible. I’ve heard a lot of stories through NAPW and ultimately after talking to several women who didn’t want to have their stories on film, I’m so grateful that I met Tammy because her story perfectly personalizes the devastating impact and the trauma of her experience that doesn’t really leave you.
You don’t imagine when you go to the doctor that what you tell them is going to then be used against you, because it’s such a violation of the patient confidentiality thing. We all assume that in fact. That’s the first thing people say to me when I start talking about this. They said, well, what about HIPAA. They’re not really thinking about all the other rights. I mean, it’s just so big on people’s minds and the thought of being violated in that way is really shocking. But if you can get past that and you think about all the other civil rights abuses that Tammy suffered in particular with Wisconsin’s laws; they are really broad-reaching in terms of squashing a woman’s civil rights.
It isn’t just Wisconsin. Anywhere these laws get put into place, they have the potential to be used against pregnant women themselves. I don’t know if you know how these laws typically get made. I mean, we talked about it in the film a little bit, but usually outside of the overt anti-abortion efforts. It’s really an insidious kind of under the radar strategy that they’ve had as more and more laws take over.
Like usually there’s some tragedy and so all the efforts come behind getting this law passed that creates a victim status for The Unborn and by assigning them legal rights to that victim status. You’re really putting every single woman at risk of being a potential criminal, right? All right, because any behavior could be used against you.
ZD: Exactly! That graphic in the film to show how many states where these laws exist? Yeah, you know, I live in California. I’m thinking oh, yeah, you know a pretty liberal State. You know, we probably won’t have these laws but it’s like boom, no, it’s right there!
JA: Even so, it’s written that these laws can be used against pregnant women, and it just matters how it’s interpreted. So over time and as the political winds change, so do the laws and how they’re applied. So, am I rambling?
ZD: No, your passion and your excitement are definitely contagious!
JA: I’ve been in this for so long. You know, my kids are even kind of in this too. So, my oldest of three kids was 20 when I started this film and just watched me, nose to the grindstone on this. So, you know, the passion is kind of pushed off into them to now they’re all aware of this issue and able to speak about it.
ZD: Yeah, good job, Mommy! I have two daughters also.
JA: Our criminal justice system does not flow equally and especially with this issue. I think it’s really terrifying for women of color and it’s just so interesting how this film just kind of intersects these issues. These other issues like our drug war and our mass incarceration complex. Racism and classism just flow into this issue as well. That’s another shocking thing for me is just how unbalanced those stats are. We included some of that in the film.
ZD: Yeah, I know for me in the future, I would plan on teaching your documentary at some point when it’s at that stage. Oh, I could do like a little series with this because you know, there’s also Ava Duvernay’s The 13th. It’s like every Amendment needs to be in mainstream conversations.
JA: This is really important for people to understand and make sure that they’re aware of what’s going on. Thank you for saying that because that’s one of our overarching goals with the film—to just try to get to reframe this and to change the way people are talking about this.
The reason why these laws are getting passed is that it’s only really being talked about through this abortion lens and a lot of people have just checked out. Right? Can they imagine their wives or sisters or daughters or friends going through what Tammy did?
I hope that the film personalizes that in a way that they really understand that what happened to Tammy can happen to anybody, you know, right, but of course this isn’t happening to everybody. To middle-class women, you know, that’s not, you know, that’s not a hundred percent true. But typically, you know, I think what happens is that women who are in need of services are already under a level of State scrutiny. Yes. So, you know, if you’re in a private practice with your own insurance those doctors are probably more interested in helping you through that or giving you warnings, right? You know, it’s the tax of being a lower income person or someone who’s already on the margins. That’s a really heavy tax.
ZD: Let’s talk specifically about the structure of your documentary, Personhood. Your skills as an editor shine because it’s really interesting to watch the first 10-12 minutes of the film. As a viewer, I’m like okay this is showing me both sides of the issues – you really do give good coverage to the personhood advocates, but then you start your attack.
Tammy Loertscher is such a good protagonist, really, I should say Tammy and her mother, Marge are the protagonists. How do you feel your background as an editor focused you for being a director of this particular project?
JA: Yeah, I think it was tremendously helpful, you know, and I know that you know as a filmmaker. Over the years I’ve had many different roles as a freelance filmmaker. I’ve run sound and I’ve gone on a lot of production trips. I’ve done a lot of editing and so all of that helps prepare you to be a director, because I didn’t go to film school. I became a filmmaker when I turned 40. This was a conscious choice to start over. I can’t imagine directing a film without having had all of that experience. I also work in narrative. I do a lot of narrative editing and that really helped play into how I wanted to edit this film, because it’s a talking head doc, right? I didn’t want people to snooze and so with narrative storytelling techniques like going back and forth between people helped unfurl this story. I’ve never been more challenged in an edit than I was on this one, because of that closeness to the material and I had a previous rough cut, that I knew at the end of it wasn’t doing the story justice and that was really hard for me.
But I had to step away for almost a full six months and I focused on doing other work, because that’s how you make an independent film, you work and then you work on your project and then you get some more money and you work on the project so I came back to it after really struggling internally about what am I going to do? How many ways can I tell this story? It just clicked one day, and I started thinking about this structure and where I started. I think it’s just so much better than the previous structure.
ZD: Well, congratulations, Jo. That is really hard to do. That role of trying to look at the work as a director and then look at the work as an editor is really hard.
JA: As a director you remember what it took to get this scene and get this shot, so as a director you think that it’s got to be in there, but then ultimately as an editor you have to decide. Well, is this scene in the service of the story? It might have to be taken out or it might have to be put somewhere where you didn’t think it was going to be, so I cut out a lot of stuff. I tried to really make it lean. I mean, I had a stack of transcripts. It was like a phone book and, you know, just the content inside of Cherisse Scott’s entire interview should be a manuscript. It’s just her knowledge and her passion in the world. It was almost impossible to boil down. Yes, you know boiling it all down with the amount of incredible material and the amazing interviews that I had with everybody, you know from Lynn Paltrow and Arthur Caplan. There’s just so many diverse voices. That was a huge challenge in the writing; to boil it all down.
I always use this analogy, because I grew up on a farm in New Hampshire and we used to make our maple syrup in the spring and it was always, you know, you start with that 40 gallon bucket, but in the end you come out with like a quart of that Grade A Amber syrup. I tell this to my students I teach at University of Washington in the spring as they’re making their stories. I really pushed my skills over the course of this film. You look back and think of all the things you would do differently in the end. I have the exact film I want, but I just learned so much and especially in the last year of the rewrite. Even though I’ve been doing this for 10—over 10—years, my storytelling ability really changed over the course of the film. I got a lot better at picking out those salient points and how best to communicate.
Tammy is just a huge part of my heart. I’ve spent her son’s first two birthdays with them. She’s such a huge part of me. There’s so much of her story that I wasn’t able to tell, in the service of telling the overall story. I interweaved the national story and the personal story to come out with this film that would hopefully move the needle on this issue and get people talking about it in a different way.
ZD: Exactly. What was your first filming session on this documentary?
JA: My first call and my first day of filming was with Personhood USA. I called them and at this point, I hadn’t narrowed down that I was going to be doing a film about the criminalization of pregnant women. I saw this Rachel Maddow segment in November of 2011 and by January of 2012 I was in Colorado talking with Keith Mason. These people are really passionate about how they feel, and this story is stronger for having their voice represented. I would like to change minds in red states or in areas where people have squishy feelings about abortion, but when they learn about this, they will think there’s got to be a different way forward.
In focus groups that we’ve screened for, many people, especially younger people, they’re so used to hearing the spin and they were really glad that they were being trusted to make their own decisions about the issue. So that was that was an important choice that was actually criticized by a few people along the way but it was really important to me that I edited them as they were, you know, let them speak their truth and then the rest of the film is about answering that, right?
ZD: Can you tell me a little bit more about your relationship with your producer Rosalie Miller?
JA: Yes, Rosalie came on the project in 2014 and as you know from making films you have to have lean budgets and dedicated people if you’re going to get it through. Rosalie has been this incredible part of the filmmaking team and we all were taking care of the things. We just made a really great team and she was an integral part of the film.
ZD: How did you find each other?
JA: She reached out to me through a mutual acquaintance. She reached out to me and we sat down and she said I’d really love to be a part of it. At that point, I was just out there trying to make it happen. It just really took the production to a whole different level. It’s just too much to do for one person for sure. You’ve got to have a strong team and having Rosalie on the team really made a huge difference in this film.
ZD: Then the other person that clearly made a big difference for you would be your cinematographer?
JA: Yes, Mark Pingry. Mark gave me my very first opportunity as a filmmaker. We go way back and when I made this switch I kind of I had started learning Final Cut on my own. I had been recuperating from a long-term illness and I just really wanted to focus on my passions. I made it happen and I was a single parent. I was a 42-year old media intern and I had other jobs to make this work. I met Mark through a project I was doing with a nonprofit and both of our kids were involved in it, and he called me one day and said I’m shooting a documentary in Hong Kong, will you come and run the sound and then edit for me? That started our collaboration where I did several films with him and had like incredible adventures and he’s been a huge support and a huge mentor. I mean, you can’t become a filmmaker without having incredible mentors and he’s just one of them. It’s just I adore Mark and he did this film on a greatly reduced rate than he normally earns, and he was willing to travel all over and work as long as we needed to. Yeah, so we were kind of a trio, Rosalie, Mark and I filming together. It was a lot of fun and everyone just worked so hard, you know, to get it. Rosalie would jump in to do the sound and I’d be doing the interviews, right? And so, you know, I have these great shots of Rosalie sitting with the slate and she’s got the earphones on. I mean that’s how incredible this team was; is that wherever there was a hole to fill, either Rosalie, I or Mark would do it.
That’s how you have to make independent film, especially as a first-time director. It’s not only is that you are an unknown filmmaker, but besides that you don’t know how to tell the story of the film; you haven’t figured out how to write a grant. Grant writing was something that caused me a lot of frustration just trying to figure out how to present the film to people.
ZD: Can you talk a little bit about your fundraising strategies?
JA: It’s an education just making a film! I mean we didn’t win the big grants and I made an initial investment in the film with my savings to get around to those places. But the rest of our film was really funded by our group of supporters who believed in us to tell the story and to finish the film. Rosalie was so integral in raising funds for the film. We had a couple of house parties where we would show work-in-progress and people just really cared about the issue and it was new to them. We had incredible supporters here in Seattle, you know OBGYNs, and they were very well connected. The reproductive health community would come to these house parties and we raised money that way. To finish the film, we had a very successful crowdfunding campaign and that we did on a really different platform called Women You Should Fund. They’re based out of New York. We just loved their approach and they were so supportive, and we raised the money to finish, to take us to the finish line.
We did win a couple of small grants and we were selected to pitch it AMDOCS, which is the American Documentary Film Fund. We were one of the pitch winners and that was thrilling. Yeah, over the course of time making a film, you get discouraged, but then you get to have an experience like that. It just injects all of the energy again that you need to keep moving. I don’t know if you’ve experienced but there were a couple of times where I just thought, like, can I escape? How do I get on with such an enormous task? Because it felt so big to have to shepherd it through, you just dig deep and then you have these inspiring experiences, or somebody tells you how powerful they thought a scene was.
ZD: I’m curious, how did you decide that you were going to do like the works-in-progress screenings as a part of your process or did they it just happen?
JA: No, we intentionally planned these fundraisers, these house parties. It was always such a challenge to take all this material and boil it down into a 10- or 15-minute piece, right? Yep. No, part of that’s really frustrating trying to make something. For grants and fundraising you’re putting all of this energy into trying to condense a story, so basically, you’re writing these little short films that are never really doing the story justice, right?
It’d be great if we didn’t have to put all that energy into those things and just focus on the full narrative, you know. Yeah, it’s part of it and the process. Yeah, and then later on. We’ve just had so much support from the Seattle film community. I would have like five or six women filmmakers. I knew they would come over and sit on my couch and, you know, we’d watch the film and they gave really great feedback. It wasn’t just oh, wow.
I think people feel powerless today because the politics are so freaking crazy. You know, you just kind of want to tune out, that is maybe by design. I’m hoping that the film will not only get people really pissed but will also inspire them to vote in those local elections. You have to vote for state representatives because this is where the laws are made. I had been working as an activist here in Seattle for health care reform. This was an issue that was near and dear to me because I had gone through periods of my life where I was uninsured and my kids weren’t insured and, you know, there’s never been anything more stressful for me.
ZD: Tell me, how did Cherisse Scott become a part of the project?
JA: Well, I had heard about the Tennessee fetal assault law and wanted to tell that as a part of the national story. I wanted to show where this was happening in other states and I did try to find a story to tell about someone who’d gone through this, but it’s really hard and people that are engaged with this legally, they’re traumatized. They’re just not interested. They’re trying to survive. They’re not interested in taking part in a documentary. But Cherisse was really willing to talk to me about the law.
I also wanted to fold in this reproductive justice approach to this issue; that meant for me that I wanted to have a woman of color speaking to that because these techniques are the creation of women of color. I thought it was really important for Cherisse to speak to that and for sure she’s the one to speak to the racism that has been at the root of reproductive oppression for women of color throughout our history. She was incredible. She opened her home to us when we interviewed her and I got to witness her with her SisterReach Reproductive Justice Summit and, you know, everything about reproductive Justice makes so much sense, in terms of looking at women and their whole experience, right? I wanted that to be a part of the conversation for everyone going forward. Cherisse is one of the most powerful women that I’ve encountered. She’s achieved so much with her organization there in Tennessee. Did you see what happened to her when she tried to testify in Tennessee? Yeah, they cut her mic off. She was one of four women and the only black woman to testify against this abortion measure at the Tennessee legislature, but she went last and he cut her mic off as soon as she started folding in white supremacy and all of those issues. It got a lot of coverage because you’re not going to quiet Cherisse Scott! Thank God for that and thank God for women that there are these fierce advocates telling it like it is. We need more. I think we need more of that. So, I’m super grateful that she participated in the film and supported the work that I was doing, and I learned so much.
ZD: You and your team are busy getting your Personhood documentary out there. What would you like to have happen?
JA: We’ve applied to a ton of festivals and you know, I can’t say which one, but we got into another great Festival. We’re kind of under embargo until they announce the lineup, but so far, the response has been really positive. So that’s really encouraging. We’ll definitely try to have a strong festival run and start getting the word out. I’ve already started talking with the group Repro Action; they’re a direct-action group that’s working on a variety of reproductive justice issues, and they’re actually on the ground in Wisconsin now advocating against Act 292. I’ve been talking with them about how we could partner on an awareness campaign in Wisconsin. That to me is as important as anything in our outreach. Because Tammy didn’t get any justice through the courts.
I have big goals. I’d love to take this film to Washington DC and get people talking.
ZD: I want to know if there’s anything else that you wanted to add that I didn’t get a chance to ask you about or anything else that you felt like we didn’t get to cover specifically?
JA: The thing that I want to impress on people is that we are not powerless in this; if you cast a vote against a judge or a DA or a state representative who is pushing for these laws. That’s your power because these laws aren’t going to get stopped. I mean that’s why voting is so important if it’s so hard to stay engaged because of everything that’s going on. But the Trump Administration has remade the courts with these young judges that will affect us through many, many decades. So, if we’re not doing our thing, if we just say, well, I can’t affect anything. It’s all out of my hands. You know, that’s the road to losing your rights. I just want people to feel empowered to get out there and find out what their representatives support and vote, vote, vote!
World Premiere: Friday, Nov. 8 at 7:15pm
Encore: Thursday, Nov. 14 at 10:45am
DOC NYC at Cinépolis Chelsea
The Personhood team is “looking for organizations and individuals, in exchange for credit and other perks, to help… bring this film to communities across the US in 2019 and 2020. For more details, please contact Rosalie Miller and Jo Ardinger at email@example.com.”
Zeinabu irene Davis is an American filmmaker and professor of the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. Her works in film include narrative, documentary and experimental film. Davis is the 2019 recipient of the George C. Stoney Award for Outstanding Documentary Work from UFVA (University Film and Video Association). She is the first person of color to win this award. A selection of her award winning works includes Cycles (1989), A Period Piece (1991), A Powerful Thang (1991), Mother of a River (1995) and Compensation (1999) which are distributed by Women Make Movies. Her most recent documentary, Spirits of Rebellion: Black Film from Los Angeles (2016) is carried by Cinema Guild.