After the 2016 election, filmmakers Janet Goldwater, Barbara Attie and Mike Attie said they felt a sense or urgency to make “Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa,” a short documentary about counselors working for a Philadelphia abortion hotline who try to help women seeking to end a pregnancy but can’t afford it.
“‘Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa’ was conceived with a sense of urgency in the aftermath of the 2016 election,” Goldwater said of the film, a finalist for TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival. “Barbara and I surveyed the bleak political scenario for an untold “story” that would shed a light on the increased suffering we feared this presidency would bring. We settled on the growing threats to reproductive rights, a topic we have explored in a number of feature documentaries in the past 25 years.”
Indeed, Barbara Attie and Goldwater first collaborated on “Motherless: A Legacy of Loss From Illegal Abortion,” about children orphaned when their mothers died after back-alley abortions before Roe v. Wade, and have worked together since 1990.
Goldwater already had an established connection with the abortion helpline in Philadelphia where she “more than once heard a woman talk about choosing between food for the children she already had and paying for an abortion.” So she pulled in Barbara Attie, who was “immediately struck by the power of the callers’ stories.”
She enlisted her son, Mike, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and the trio started working on the film in 2017 with no funding. The film has no voiceovers — instead, the actual calls speak for themselves.
“In this case, we decided that the most direct way to highlight the issue of abortion access was to elevate the voices of individuals who have been intentionally cut off from access by a federal policy–the Hyde Amendment,” Barbara Attie explained. “So in the film, all you hear are the callers, seeking to control their fertility and family size, and the counselors–college students grappling with their capacity to help women in need… We see this film as part of a much larger discussion about economic injustice and the many ways in which it undermines the lives of so many in our communities.”
Goldwater says that getting permission to record these calls wasn’t too much of a difficulty, as many — not all — callers knew they could potentially help others. “Working with an attorney, we crafted a permission statement that counselors read to the callers assuring them that their decision whether to allow us to record their calls would not impact the outcome of their financial request. They were also assured that their identity would be confidential,” Goldwater said. However, not all counselors were completely relaxed about being filmed at work, Mike Attie said, so it took some time to establish that comfort. That’s partially why the film took two years to make.
Plus, all three filmmakers live in Philadelphia so they had already established trust in the reproductive rights community. Instead, the team faced its biggest difficulty in regards to shooting location.
“I think the biggest hurdle we faced was the visual limitation of filming in a tiny, windowless office,” Mike Attie said. “We toyed with creating scenes outside the office but in the end, felt that it only diminished the power of the stories. The film only leaves the tense confines of the helpline office to show archival footage of Congressman Henry Hyde, as he gleefully introduces the legislation cutting off access to abortion for poor women.”
“Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa” was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and won the Grand Jury Prize for Short Documentary at the 2020 AFI Docs Festival.