How we got our story

The new Atavist feature, The Last Clinic, is a product of persevering and roughing it

In the process of making the multimedia work The Last Clinic, about the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, filmmaker Maisie Crow had her car’s tires cut. A man passing by her on her bike threatened her with a gun. Another strange man followed her from a parking lot to her motel room and waited outside the door.

Despite these threats, more befitting of a noir film than a documentary, Maisie constructed a 50-minute film of uncommon intimacy and beauty, accompanied by a 4,000-word article that I reported and wrote.

Maisie and I started talking about the project that would become The Last Clinic in the spring of 2012, when we were teaching a multimedia class together at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. We’d have long conversations over drinks—wouldn’t it be great to do a documentary with an essay and a photo gallery, employing Atavist software, which we were using with our students that semester? What if it was about our shared obsession: how politics and inequality affect young women and girls?

We weren’t sure we’d get to make it a reality. But after our class ended, I badgered Maisie into agreeing to pitch a film to The Atavist, where I was working as an editor. At the time, I envisioned two 10-minute shorts or three five-minute ones, not the full feature it became.

Based on our conversations, I wrote up a proposal for a documentary and story about teen pregnancy in Texas and sent it to Evan Ratliff, Atavist’s co-founder, and to the journalists Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Rivlin of the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. The Atavist expressed interest. Then in July, Maisie read on Jezebel about the court case in Mississippi threatening to close down its last abortion clinic. We switched our focus, and the EHRP agreed to provide additional reporting funds. I could only hope that this sort of funding partnership may herald another publishing model for serious, deeply reported narrative documentaries and articles.

Maisie decided to fly to Jackson the day after we learned we’d secured the money. She brought a student of hers for a week and a half, met the clinic’s owner, spent time in the Delta. But she came back defeated. She hadn’t found the right characters. She wasn’t sure the piece would ever come together.

Maisie kept returning, though, until she started to find what she needed. My 16-month-old baby kept me from spending too much time down south, but I’d listen admiringly (and jealously) to Maisie’s accounts, as she started to spend more and more time in Jackson. We’d go over how she would structure the thing on the phone, but it was still hypothetical until she found her subjects. Things started to click when she met one of her film’s central figures, Jasmine, when Maisie pulled up near a house in the summer where a group of people were sitting outside. She asked, bluntly, for young women to talk to about teen pregnancy. An older woman suggested Maisie speak with her granddaughter Jasmine, a struggling young mother who became one of the film’s central characters.

A little later, Maisie met an abortion provider at the clinic, the silver-tongued Dr. Willie Parker. He is one of two doctors there and travels from DC, where he lives, to Jackson for a few days each month. After briefly talking with him, Maisie traveled with Parker from Washington to Jackson, filming. In the months following, she shot Parker, women working at the clinic, women getting terminations, and the anti-abortion protesters outside. She met one woman who once ran an abortion clinic and then was born-again into a pro-life activist. The woman was Parker’s diametric opposite.

Maisie grew so engrossed by the story that sometimes she’d spend entire days in the clinic without filming. But her staying so long meant that the staff started to relax around her. She knew all about their families and love lives. She was allowed to wander into all of the back rooms. She even was permitted to witness and film abortion procedures.

The story, which I thought of as the Alamo of abortion rights, was heating up. Sometimes there were other documentary crews or photographers around, muscling in. But Maisie outstayed them. As a writer, I had it a little easier. I went down in November. I stayed in a cheap hotel, ate mostly Doritos, reported intensively, and left. My access was fantastic—my collaborator had effectively blazed a path, and all I had to do was ask the right questions.

As we were finishing the project in the days before Roe vs. Wade’s 40th anniversary, the situation at the clinic became even more extreme. Pro-life protesters descended on Jackson holding a casket reputed to contain a real fetus. Real children (of pro-lifers) carried it. There were pro-choice activists too, making the battle fiercer. Maisie stopped by to see the protests but was mostly editing the film in her friend’s apartment in Jackson, sleeping four hours a night, cutting on a laptop with seven hard drives daisy-chained together at her friend’s dining-room table. She slept on a small bed in the kitchendining room. She’s still down there, six months after she first arrived, waiting for the judge’s decision.

UPDATE, January 30: Maisie has since left Mississippi.

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Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.