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plan-c .jpg

'Plan C' Is The Best Film You’re Not Going to See This Summer

By Diana Helmuth | Film | April 11, 2023 |

By Diana Helmuth | Film | April 11, 2023 |

plan-c .jpg

Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “the only thing wrong with this is that more people aren’t gonna see it?”

This was the feeling I had after watching the premiere of Tracy Droz Tragos’ documentary Plan C at SXSW last month. It was being shown on Sunday morning at the ZACH theater. I had been warned by veteran attendees that in order to secure my spot for a SXSW film screening, I should get in line at least an hour beforehand. However, this advice did not apply to films shown on Sunday morning at the ZACH. Despite being a stately and comfortable theater, it is removed from downtown by a significant shuttle ride, and Sunday morning is a sacred time at any festival weekend, reserved for quiet contemplation of one’s hangover. When I showed up just before 10 am (with a burbling stomach and headache) the 427-seat theater was only about a quarter full.

But maybe this isn’t the only reason it was low capacity. At the Q&A following the screening, when Tragos herself and several of the activists profiled in the film took the stage, one audience member queried, “is it legal for us to even be watching this?” Chuckles blew through the crowd. Then eyes turned serious toward the filmmaker. Was this, in fact, legal? We were, after all, watching a film about medication abortions. In Texas. (On Sunday).

In a way, it’s meta - the barely attended premiere was for a film about the struggle to advertise barely known drug: “Plan C” pills, that is, prescription medication that can safely end a pregnancy before 12 weeks. Abortion medication (delivered to your front door!) has been available in Europe and Asia decades before most American women were aware it was even possible. I first learned about home medication abortion when I was studying abroad in 2012; a friend announced she was pregnant, and when I offered to help her find a clinic, said she had already ordered some pills online for about $50 USD and was simply going to stay home that weekend. I considered myself an educated, pro-choice person, and I had no idea this was an option. That many American women know about self-managed, medication abortion today is largely due to the work of the activists featured in this documentary.

Plan C begins in 2020, following the work of the nonprofit organization of the same name and its founder Francene Coeytaux - a public health leader made up of 50% female rage and 50% unfiltered iron. The organization is a matrix of clinic workers, activists, midwives, and doctors. They hold meetings on back patios and work at kitchen tables late into the night, tirelessly connecting desperate pregnant people with the doctors and medication they need. They buy billboards, rent advertising space, print flyers. At one point the group enters a university campus to put up stickers that say “pregnant? Don’t want to be? Go to” Coeytaux walks into a bathroom stall and sees two copies of a pocket bible on the toilet paper dispenser. “Well, if they can put this here,” she whispers, popping a sticker into the front inner flap of the book. “I can put this here.”

The film starts on an optimistic tone. At-home medication abortion exists, it’s just that not a lot of people know about it, how safe it is, how affordable. The issue is not one of science but of marketing. During the worst waves of COVID, as hospitals swelled with patients just as they bled staff, the government took a tip from Europe and greenlit the ability for people to obtain abortion medication by mail. Tragos plays audio clips of women telling their stories of relief and gratitude, alongside B-roll footage of suburban neighborhoods, warmly-lit apartment building windows, and street corners. The message is clear: abortion can happen at home. Abortion is safe. Abortion is a part of your community.

I hadn’t seen the movie before, but I braced myself for what I knew was coming next.

The film’s timeline arrives to 2022, and necessarily transforms into a documentary about the overturning of Roe V. Wade. We see footage of protests outside the Supreme Court, news anchors unveiling abortion bans throughout dozens of US states. The tone of the movie shifts. This is no longer about marketing. Plan C is now a criminal organization.

We see scenes of the activists running their hands through their hair, eyes shifting left to right, trying to make sense of what, precisely they are still allowed to do, and where, depending on each state’s laws. Lawyers chime in and say in many cases, there’s no way to know what will really happen until someone goes to trial and sets a precedent. At risk of losing their licenses (and in some cases, their lives), many of the doctors and clinics who worked with Plan C begin to stop prescribing and shipping pills. “‘If I can’t get an abortion, I’m gonna kill myself,’” quotes one clinic worker of a patient, “And then she hungs up the phone.”

Tragos somehow manages to portray the severity of this situation without fatalism and hopelessness. We are introduced to new characters, portrayed only by their hands and modulated voices. From behind a dark shadow, a pixelated face tells me, “I am scared. But I know if I go down, there are ten more people behind me. And if those ten go down, there’s a hundred more behind them. And a thousand more behind them.”

I felt a well rise inside of me at this final act. My hangover was forgotten. Here I was sitting in a comfy, air-conditioned theater in Texas, meeting this wall of silent warriors, people risking their careers and very lives, to ensure that I—yes, I, very specifically I—get to be in charge of what happens to the life factory between my legs. If you have a uterus (frankly, even if you don’t), it is impossible not to take this entire film personally. I left the theater with the strange sensation of both a weight on my shoulders, and a light in my heart.

The abortion debate is endlessly compelling precisely because it’s so personal; we all have an opinion about it and that opinion is both important and correct. And yet, somehow, the film never indulges the arguments about abortion being good or bad. What it actually does is prove that it doesn’t matter if you, or your neighbor, or your president, believes abortion is good or bad. Abortion will happen. This is a fact as true as water being wet or fire being hot. As dual rulings are passed down just this last weekend, deeming abortion medications both protected and improperly approved, it’s clear that we are still living the history Tragos sought to document, and Plan C’s work is far from finished. It’s all the more comforting that, in the midst of this chaos, Tragos has taken the volcanic political debate back to its calm, human roots, and shows us that no matter what, abortion will always be available.

Plan C is scheduled to screen at a handful of film festivals around the country. It has not yet been picked up for public distribution. Check here for screenings in your area.