How Filmmakers of ‘The Janes’ Documentary Confront Today’s Abortion Debate Through a 1960s Lens (Video)

Sundance 2022: “These were ordinary women turned outlaws,” co-director Tia Lessin says. “What better story is there than that?”

One of the most talked about films at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, “The Janes,” is a documentary that focuses on a collective of women in Chicago who broke the law in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Their crime? Providing abortions to women in need, in the years before 1973’s Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision struck down laws prohibiting a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

The directors of “The Janes,” Emma Pildes and Oscar nominee Tia Lessin (2008’s “Trouble the Water”), were joined by two members of the abortion service — the Jane Collective, Diane Stevens and Judith Arcana, for a conversation moderated by TheWrap’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman.

The Janes
Members of the Jane Collective (Sundance)

Right from the start, the documentary’s relevancy to today was a major topic. “There has been a slow chipping away (of abortion rights) since 1973,” Pildes said. “If you’re paying attention, that’s not new news. But it has gone into hyper-speed since 2018. And there have been milestones along the way that have lit a fire under us to get this film out.”

Further proof that the subject of abortion is timely: Sundance is also showing “Call Jane,” a film starring Elizabeth Banks as a housewife in late-1960s suburban Chicago who seeks an abortion with the Jane Collective, where she is cared for by a member played by Sigourney Weaver. (Click here to read about Waxman’s conversation with the director and cast of “Call Jane.”)

Lessin addressed how a story from 50 years ago could have resonance in 2022. “It’s a great story,” she said. “It’s set against the turmoil of the late ’60s and early ’70s Chicago, which was the epicenter of resistance and defiance at that time. And these women were incredibly courageous in not just doing what they did, but then sitting in front of cameras and speaking about it. These were ordinary women turned outlaws. What better story is there than that?”

During the conversation, Stevens spoke candidly about her arrest at the age of 22. “I knew I was doing something illegal all along and I knew there was the possibility of going to jail,” she said. “When we were actually arrested, I felt that I was in a much better position than some of the other women. In that I didn’t have children, I didn’t have a family. But I was willing to face it.”

Arcana pointed out the danger of being arrested just wasn’t paramount in her mind. “We have to think about the difference between law and justice,” she said. “Law is somebody’s idea and if that somebody has the power to make it be the rule that everybody has to follow, then it’s a thing. But that’s got nothing to do with the way people should behave.”

She added, “Like Diane (Stevens), when we were arrested, it was pretty scary. We knew we were endangered. But, again, that was not the most important thing. I know that sounds like sky-blue-dreaminess, but actually a lot of us thought that way.”

For much more conversation about the documentary “The Janes,” click on the full video above.

TheWrap’s Sundance Studio is presented by NFP and National Geographic Documentary Films.