Vessel directed by Diana Whitten is a controversial film. For some it will represent a cry of freedom which can help women carve out their own sovereignty and insure that they have authority over their own minds, souls, and bodies. For those who think they can control how a woman cares for herself, even though she may be unrelated to them and not their financial responsibility, the film will be reprehensible.
It is without question that we have authority over material property we own, and the cultural more of owning human property legally has been abrogated. Nevertheless, this antique more haunts our cultural institutions. Of course, the notion of women as “property” is abhorrent in the West as it is growing in disfavor in Asia, but a strange hypocrisy exists. There are women and men who have deemed that women’s minds, souls, and bodies can be controlled and ruled over. In other words, women may be treated as chattel, subjects, “property.” The question of who controls a woman’s being and body (one is not mutually exclusive of the other), of who makes her chattel or who frees her from this noxious bondage is at the core of he film Vessel.
Vessel, the award-winning film which enjoyed its NY premier at the 5th Athena Film Festival, won director Diana Whitten a special award for political courage at SXSW (2014). Whitten makes difficult choices during her documentary. Despite the intense fallout, she chronicles Dr. Rebecca Gomperts’ activism in helping women decide whether they want access to a safe abortion or they want to perform an illegal one themselves. As an important part of the film, Whitten includes Gompert’s discussion about how she became an activist.
A Dutch-born physician who had practiced in other countries, Gomperts witnessed the suffering and harm that desperate women caused themselves in attempting to abort their pregnancies. She had treated numerous women who had used everything from poisons and large impaling objects like knitting needles to throwing themselves down flights of stairs to induce miscarriages. Some women died from self-inflicted injuries, bleeding to death, or impaling their organs. After dealing with such misery, Dr. Gomperts decided to create a team of men and women who would offer safe medical services to women who were willing to risk death to give themselves an abortion. Such women for whatever reason had already made up their minds and would stop at nothing to abort their pregnancies since safe abortions were illegal in their countries. In their minds, there was no turning back, though their behaviors, if unsuccessful, were tantamount to suicidal.
Dr. Gomperts wanted to offer desperate women hope, safety, and access to medical services as well as reproductive counseling. contraceptive devices and education which would allow them to govern and control their lives, exercising their own, sovereignty. But how to do this effectively and legally was a long time coming. Initially, Dr. Gomperts created the foundation entitled Women on Waves. With her team she investigated the feasibility of offering legal abortion services, reproductive education, and contraception to women who were restricted from receiving such services in their home countries.
She and her team came up with the idea of a leased Dutch ship which would circle the globe and travel to countries where they had received women’s cries for help via phone and email, but whose nations banned any services for them. Services on the ship would be given in a specially constructed mobile clinic. As the ship sailed near various countries, the women would make appointments and would be taken on board the ship which would sail out to international waters. The Dutch ship, which was under Dutch law (abortions are legal in the Netherlands), outside of territorial waters offered the opportunity of bringing reproductive health services and legal, non-surgical abortion services to these women.
Whitten documents the travels and reception of Women on Waves in various countries. She illuminates Dr. Rebecca Gompert’s errors, tribulations and the controversies over time that followed her and her team in their attempts to help the hundreds of desperate women who heard about them and contacted them pleading for aid because they were denied access to counseling, contraception, and reproductive services, and prevented from access to non surgical abortion services.
Over the 7 year period it took to get the film made, Whitten covers Dr. Gomperts’ campaigns in Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Spain, and and other countries that criminalized safe abortions and indirectly encouraged women’s harm to themselves. The filmmaker highlights various protests and media circuses as the ship lands and sometimes is blocked (Portugal, Morocco). Whitten’s film also shows the humor in many of the situations Women on Waves encounters. For example, the Portuguese sent out a warship to “greet” them and ascertain if they were going to cross the boundary of international waters. They block their entry to Portugal and commit a violation of international maritime law. With regard to Ireland, Poland, Spain, and other countries, in no way had Gomperts and her crew broken any laws.
This and other ludicrous events occur. Each new experience teaches Dr. Gomperts and Women on Waves a valuable lesson. They realize that using the vessel in the way they had intended actually was causing more negative repercussions than positive. And still the women were being denied treatment, help, and access. That meant more suffering, more injury, more death. Something had to be done. (globally, every 10 minutes a woman dies because she can’t get a safe abortion-Upworthy)
The documentary shows how through trial and error, Dr. Gomperts and Women on Waves finally come up with a solution to provide women the knowledge, information, and access to safe abortions and contraceptive services. The solution they implement saves lives. Importantly, they have been returning to these desperate women their own sovereignty over their minds and bodies which had been robbed from them in an attempt to maintain an ill-conceived dominance based on fear.
This “work-around” solution that Dr. Gomperts and her team devised is currently empowering women around the world. It is allowing them to decide in the privacy of their own homes actions which they can perform under their own power. What they decide and do is something that no one will know about nor be able to contain. Furthermore, no law is being broken in the process. For Dr. Gomperts and Women on Waves, it is only a matter of getting the information and education to women and helping them understand that they have the power and opportunity to reason for themselves whether they should continue a pregnancy or terminate it. Dr. Gomperts’ and Women on Waves is allowing these women to be able to choose in freedom so no one can make them their “property,” enforcing them to commit desperate, harmful actions, while in the process, obviating responsibility for them.
Whitten’s adroit skills using Cinéma vérité enabled her to meld together clips of the fascinating events that occurred during the protests to encapsulate a compelling story. Her inclusion of the team’s failed attempts and lessons hard won is paramount to create an uplifting film which provides information and hope for thousands of women. The filmmaker’s courage and candidness in her approach to not whitewash, but to portray as objectively as possible Women on Waves’ struggle is vital to the film’s credibility. Whitten also beautifully underscores how this subject reflects an examination of global cultural diversity. And it is a reminder that the stranglehold that some ancient mores have, mores that subtly embrace control, paternalism, and women as chattel (though that concept is allegedly “verboten”), still chokes and destroys.
Indeed, as the film reveals during the protests where we see women shouting along with the men, such mores are embraced by women in modern cultures in the West. The film ironically exposes that these women do not understand how they are subverting their own power and sovereignty by encouraging that other women be viewed as chattel, unable to decide for themselves what they can and cannot do with their own existence. Finally, the positive response to the film is an encouraging reminder that sometimes despite laws, critical mass will occur, and politicians, leaders and others inevitably must bend to the public’s majority will. That Dr. Gompert’s and Women on Waves persevered, to eventually come up with a solution for women who have their own individual reasons why they must make a decision that only they can comprehend, is to her credit. Working through the labyrinth of legal, political, and religious complexity, Dr. Gomperts and her team achieved and are achieving a milestone success.
The “vessel” still travels the oceans. But it is now embodied as a symbol of hope and freedom. Its purpose is to lift up our awareness and remind us that as it sails responsibly without encumbrance, so must we in our personal lives. The film Vessel captures Dr. Rebecca Gomperts’ incredible story. Whether one thinks she should be vilified or admired, indeed, she saw what was happening and worked tirelessly to provide an answer. That answer which began from the germ of an idea, has burgeoned into a global movement where women are being empowered to ask who they are. The movement and film are encouraging them to recognize whether they have “property” rights over their beings or not. The film loudly and clearly shouts, if not these women, then whom? No women? Despite the rhetoric and cant of politicians and others, the film reveals through Dr. Gompert’s sterling example that women are not chattel. There is hope for them imbued in self-determination. They can be given safe options not to choose self-destructive behaviors. They should be respected to make sovereign decisions using education and scientific information. And however they decide, the decision ultimately should be theirs to live with.
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