As Wonder Woman maintains its hold on the box office and Pixar movies prepare to occupy every other highway billboard, independent filmmakers tend to be more occupied with reality—documenting the darker, more poignant sides of everyday life. In her new film 20 Weeks, which debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Monday, director Leena Pendharkar explores the still controversial subject of abortions later in pregnancy.
Pendharkar's film follows a young couple in Los Angeles who stumble into an unplanned pregnancy and learn that their unborn son is showing frightening abnormalities. At the very least, the sonogram reveals, he'll have a hand anomaly. At worst, he'll have a genetic birth defect that could cause him to struggle for every breath.
We spoke with Pendharkar about what it was like making the film in such a politically divisive climate—and how her own experiences helped shape it.
The movie was partially inspired by your own experience. Can you talk about that?
My daughter was diagnosed with a serious health condition when I was 20 weeks pregnant—it was kind of a gray area. Her mandible bone wasn't measuring correctly and the doctors didn't know what the outcome would be, but they knew that something wasn't right. They said it could be part of any number of very serious genetic disorders, or just be something that didn't form correctly that could be corrected after she got out. So, it was traumatic and scary. I did searches online and it was an unusual issue—there wasn't really much to read about it. We were going in every two weeks for sonograms so they could measure and check and it was just really harrowing.
In my case they were like 'Well, it could just be that she has a small chin, but from what we see we think that there's probably going to be an issue. She may not be able to breathe when she comes out.' Your jaw is connected to your tongue, so if it's recessed it's like your tongue is further in your throat and so your breathing isn't really right and sometimes kids can't eat right and they have to wear a tube in their neck for the first 2-3 years of their life. So it's a harrowing thing [when] you read about it and you don't know if that's going to happen.
How is she now?
She's good now. We've had a lot of struggles up to age 2, like with the surgeries. She's a very beautiful, smart, awesome kid, but her main struggle was around eating and feeding. She struggled with eating, and various textures were a challenge for her, especially after her cleft repair at 12 months. She was very sensitive, but we've gotten past much of that.
I read in your director's statement that you didn't use the word "abortion" in the film because you didn't want to politicize it. You had the word in there and you took it out. What made you decide to do that?
I really wanted to be intimate. I wanted it to be about this couple and what they were going through. I took it out because I felt like I didn't want people to just focus on that. Every time people read the script they just focused on that.
But, it still is—
It's about abortion. It is a movie about late-term abortion.
Was a later abortion something you and your husband considered when you found out that something could be wrong?
No. I mean, we had a moment where we thought, "If this turns out to be something super serious, what are we going to do and how are we going to deal with it?" But no.
Obviously, this movie is coming out at a time when reproductive rights are a huge issue. What do you think about your movie coming out in this political climate?
Part of me wanted to make this movie to start a conversation because the thing is that when people go through this, it's a very taboo subject. It's even hard for me to talk about. My husband and I didn't tell anyone while we were going through it. When we were filming, one lady came up to me on set and said that she had had to terminate a pregnancy and that she had never really talked about it.
I think that asking a woman to carry a baby with severe issues is inhumane and I think that everything that's happening right now is really frightening. I read some stories when I was doing research about women who had to go out of state to get their abortion because of how far along they were and it's really horrifying.
Did you consider a version of the movie where they terminate the pregnancy?
I did consider a version where they terminate and it still tears their relationship apart, but it just felt like Maya needed to have something to fight for. It just felt more real and authentic, like she was the kind of character who was going to do whatever was necessary.
What's your feeling about people making decisions, laws, rules about later abortion being primarily men?
It's terrible. And they've clearly never been in the situation. How can they make decisions or choices on this? It's just wrong. These things should be based on science but they should also be based on humanity. It just all feels very arbitrary.
Do you think you'll ever show the movie to your daughter?
She's only two and a half now, so not for years. I never want her to think that we didn't want her, so that's scary to me. She may want to watch it someday when she's grown up.
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