Documentarian Christopher Englese says his fascination with politics began on 9/11.
“I saw the whole thing,” Englese recalls during a phone conversation about the screening of “Political Bodies,” his film about Virginia’s abortion politics, at next week’s Richmond International Film Festival.
“I was 22 when it happened,” he says. “I literally saw one of the towers fall from the waterfront. As you can imagine, it’s a transforming experience.”
In the lead-up to and aftermath of the Iraq war, Englese says he became involved in the protests and began making short films about them and others, including the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Political Bodies,” which delves into the past few years of Virginia lawmaking concerning abortion, will show Friday, Feb. 28, at the Byrd Theatre.
The film, which walked away with the jury award for best documentary feature at the 2013 Austin Film Festival, is divided neatly among the principal protagonists, the controversial new laws and the battle lines drawn as a result. It offers a well-rounded, investigative summary into conservative lawmakers’ agenda regarding abortion and the backlash it’s received. The story it tells will be well known to many of the Richmonders who attend the screening.
Englese, who describes himself as a “policy wonk” with a knack for memorizing legislation, recalls becoming interested in these Virginia issues — he’s a Northeasterner living in Jersey City, N.J. — when the state elected Bob McDonnell as governor in 2009, along with Ken Cuccinelli as attorney general. Though McDonnell campaigned on his famous slogan “Bob’s for jobs,” he and his party drew national headlines for its legislation — the infamous transvaginal ultrasound, new rules for abortion clinics and capped by Delegate Bob Marshall’s personhood bill. While McDonnell, Cuccinelli and Marshall varied in their public response to the legislation, the film is incomplete in divvying up who was responsible for what.
The election of McDonnell and Cuccinelli in the wake of President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration was enough to get Englese’s attention, he says: “I just knew something was coming.” When the anti-abortion legislation started flying, Englese got down to Virginia and behind a camera.
In the film he interviews figures as front-and-center in the Virginia war over women’s reproductive rights as the Family Foundation’s president, Victoria Cobb, profiled by Style Weekly in a 2010 cover story, and former Virginia Delegate Katherine B. Waddell, a lifelong Republican who now says she can no longer support a party that didn’t support a woman’s right to choose.
Englese says he wasn’t surprised that the main three controversial pieces of legislation passed, but rather at how extreme they were. He was in the midst of gathering interviews when hundreds of women and men led a protest to the Virginia Capitol in March 2012. Thus begins the film’s final act, concentrating on the heated battle over the legislation that reached a tipping point during that time and resulted in wins and losses for both sides with repercussions still playing out.
Englese says he hopes his documentary demonstrates two things. First, that “a few people can stand up and have an effect.” The second is less optimistic, but perhaps just as true. In an issue in which one side is fighting for personal rights and the other is fighting the separation of church and state that makes such rights possible, there may be no compromise. Englese says his documentary implicitly asks the question, “How do you meet in the middle?”
His thought when we spoke: “You can’t.” S
“Political Bodies” screens Saturday, March 1, at the Virginia Historical Society. It’s part of the Richmond International Film Festival, taking place Feb. 27-March 2. Tickets are available at rvafilmfestival.com.