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SXSW Women Directors: Meet Diana Whitten

Women and Hollywood By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood March 9, 2014 at 11:00AM

"'Vessel' is Rebecca's story: one of a woman who hears and answers a calling, and transforms a wildly improbable idea into a global movement."
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"Vessel."
"Vessel."

Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts made waves in 1999 when she announced that she would provide abortions on international waters to women living in countries like Ireland and Poland. When her organization Women on Waves first set sail, she faced overwhelming opposition from political and religious leaders. But in the past fifteen years, Women on Waves has created a burgeoning network of international abortion activists and become one of the most unique feminist organizations in the world. 

In her feature debut Vessel, documentarian Diana Whitten profiles Gomperts and her allies. 

Vessel will debut at SXSW on March 9. 

Please give us your description of the film. 

Vessel is about Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, who sails a ship around the world, providing abortions at sea for women with no legal alternative. Her idea begins as flawed spectacle, faced with governmental, religious, and military blockade. But with each roadblock comes a more refined mission, until Rebecca realizes she can use new technologies to bypass law -- and train women to give themselves abortions with pills using WHO-researched protocols. From there, we witness her create an underground network of emboldened, informed activists who trust women to handle abortion themselves. Vessel is Rebecca's story: one of a woman who hears and answers a calling, and transforms a wildly improbable idea into a global movement.

What drew you to this story?

Initially, I was drawn to the metaphor inherent to the story -- that a woman had to leave one realm of sovereignty to reclaim her own. I thought it was a rare and interesting example of the offshore being used not for crime or personal gain, but for social justice. And I thought Rebecca would be inspiring on film. Over the years, my inspiration has evolved. It was impossible to witness these activists working with women and not internalize how desperately alone women and providers feel in settings where abortion is inaccessible. The Women on Waves campaigns make them feel connected and less scared. One of Vessel's goals is to offer that same solidarity.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Laws never control if abortions happen or not; they only can control whether or not they happen safely. Abortion with pills is considered revolutionary, as it offers a safe, accessible alternative to end unwanted pregnancies where women can get the pills but not adequate healthcare. Rebecca's is one of few organizations that publicly educates women about these pills, regardless of restrictive law. 

When we first started the film, the abortion pill was still relatively unfamiliar in the US, and the idea of self-induction was foreign. We had the challenge of educating potential allies and funders about the pills, and about how women rely on them in restricted countries. Many thought the concept was too risky.

Now, there is a growing global understanding that in restricted environments, the pills -- when used correctly -- are a viable, safe alternative. Moreover, due to an onslaught of restrictive laws in the US, many women here are faced with the same restricted options as the women visited by Rebecca's ship. It would be a different landscape were we starting this project now. 

What advice do you have for other female directors?

I suppose similar to the advice I'd have for any director: pick a story you absolutely love.

What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

At this stage, there is a misconception among my non-filmmaker friends that once the film is finished, the process is over. It's not commonly understood how much promotion and engagement is now part of the filmmaker's job. I'm excited about the engagement strategies we are planning, and the job is far from finished!

In terms of the activist side of things, I was not prepared for how empowering this work can be. We tend to have assumptions about abortion, and while it often can be a profound and sad experience for women, it is actually very common. The most consistent emotion I've seen from women seeking help is relief and gratitude. The activists in the Women on Waves network keep an unapologetic and unsentimental focus on the woman's needs, and over the years that has revealed my own misconceptions about abortion itself.

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

This is my first film, so I'm about to embark on distribution for the first time. I'm learning a lot about hybrid strategies, and it seems there is a lot of room for creativity right now as the model reinvents itself.

This article is related to: Vessel, Diana Whitten, Documentary, Abortion, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), Festivals, Interviews, Women Directors