By Alex Gibson
For this week’s PFS Blog Throwback Thursday, let’s rewind to May’s Filmadelphia Showcase, featuring 3801 Lancaster with director David Altrogge and producer Jennifer Thompson in attendance. The film is a documentary about the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who performed grisly late-term abortions for women in Philadelphia. For his actions, Gosnell was sentenced to life in prison last year.
3801 Lancaster gives an overview of the trial and interviews Gosnell’s victims, as well as police and jurors from the trial. The film paints a harrowing and heartbreaking picture that left the audience contemplating the social and legal changes that need to been seen in Philadelphia.
After the film, Altrogge and Thompson gave the audience some extra insight into the production, trial, and participants. When asked how the process of making the film began, Altrogge said:
“I was totally just kind of shocked…like everyone was when they first heard about it. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. And then a couple days later a friend of mine who lives in Harrisburg said that the district attorney was going to be testifying before the Pennsylvania State Senate about the case and said that they are going to allow press in. He knew I made films and was like, ‘If you wanna come, it’s pretty unprecedented for a district attorney to testify like that.’ So, yeah, we went and filmed that and then from there the documentary just kind of took off from there.”
Thompson added, “And the first thing that I did when David told me about the project, I joined a little bit later, I read the grand jury report which is like close to 300 pages, and then I started to find the woman. We did that in a lot of different ways. We put flyers up in Philly. I looked just all over the news and sent letters. I think that really, the story formed itself as we found them and got to know them.”
The film began production during the trial, but the filmmakers had difficulty getting the access they needed until the trial was over.
“…One of the hardest things was…the two police officers, Bobby Flade and John Taggart…” Altrogge said. “They wanted to be in but there was just a lot of, I don’t want to use the word red tape but there was just a lot to go through to interview them…they were people that we wanted to interview as soon as basically the trial started. We knew we wanted to interview them but we couldn’t talk to them until after the trial and then there was a whole process after that. So that was challenging. …We interviewed people who then decided afterwards that they wouldn’t sign the releases or they got nervous, they got cold feet. So yeah that was definitely hard.”
In addition to the difficulties of gaining access during the trials, the filmmakers were also faced with the challenges of wading through a particularly sensitive and political subject. Altrogge and Thompson said that they endeavored to make an even-handed film. Nonetheless, getting people took convincing:
“…the hardest thing with the subject matter for us was cause from the beginning we knew we just we didn’t want to make like a political film. We knew we just wanted to tell the story and let the facts of the film speak for themselves. So, for us the hardest thing was convincing people that we were talking to that we didn’t have an agenda…Anytime we mentioned what we were doing they’d look at us and try and figure out what our agenda was. People even declined to be interviewed just because they were afraid we were going to make some political film. But for us I think the work that the grand jury did and the district attorney’s office and the investigators did just really helped us just even have a story that we could wrap our minds around so when we started we had a map to follow.”
After watching 3801 Lancaster, it would be impossible not to be contemplating the film long after the credits rolled. Filmadelphia’s audience certainly seemed moved by the story and took the opportunity to ask what the filmmakers’ goals were in making the narrative.
Thompson began: “I don’t think we really knew what we were getting into when we started telling this story…I think that’s something like making this film has brought us very close to women who have had abortions and that’s not something I had ever experienced before and I wish we as a country, or as a city, or as Americans could have more conversations and more compassion for women who are either in this situation or who have had abortions or are just facing an unplanned pregnancy. Just for me as a filmmaker, working on this film, it’s been shocking how difficult it is to make the film, and I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to have gone through the experiences that these women have gone through. A lot of these women — their stories with Gosnell were nine, ten years ago and I was the second person they ever told, and telling us started them on this journey…it breaks my heart to think that there are so many more women like that and I want them all to have healing, so whatever that means for us as a country, that’s personal that’s one of my goals.”
Altrogge continued, “And I think there are a couple goals I had but one of the first goals, one of the things that made me really sad, when I saw those images of the babies who had been killed that I…had this thought like they’re gonna be forgotten, like…most people will never see their faces, most people will never know they existed for however brief a time and like I didn’t want these babies to be forgotten. I didn’t want these kids to just become faces in a grand jury report that no one would ever see. Another goal of ours and part of the film that we couldn’t show tonight, that will be the last part of the film that will be in the final release is asking the question ‘Are there other Gosnell’s out there?’ And the answer is from what we’ve seen, absolutely yes, which is really disturbing…”
Altrogge ended the night by thanking all those who had worked so hard to bring Gosnell to justice, many of whom were in the audience for the screening. The full film can be seen on their website, 3801Lancaster.com.
The full Q&A transcription can be downloaded HERE.
Trackback from your site.