At South By Southwest in Austin, TX, last week, Planned Parenthood invited attendees to confont clinic harassment through a virtual reality experience called Across the Line, which allows viewers to navigate the hurdles a woman faces in the lead-up to getting an abortion. Across the Line uses a melange of storytelling techniques to engage the viewer: It's not a documentary, it's not a scripted drama, and it's not CGI animation—it's actually all three, featuring real audio and video recorded from anti-abortion protests around the country.
Running at just over seven minutes, Across the Line can currently be viewed through three different VR platforms: Gear VTR, Google Cardboard, and HTC Vive. Seeing it with the first two is more like watching a movie, since you're seated the whole time and just moving your head around. With the Vive, it's fully immersive; you're actually walking around with the headset, at times inhabiting the form of a woman trying to enter the health clinic. Either way, it's an eerie but profound experience, and it gives a very visceral dimension to the political fight over abortion.
The VR film begins in an ordinary medical room. As we move our heads, we see a female patient sitting on the exam table, heaving a heavy sigh. A knock on the door announces the arrival of the clinic doctor, Dr. Raegan McDonald Mosley, who is actually a real doctor with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The patient is played by Kristina Nailen, who in real life is an animal-loving pediatric applied behavioral analysis therapist with a background in crisis intervention, and who herself has had an abortion in the past. Both women's backgrounds add a palpable sense of reality to a scene that would otherwise come across as staged if played by actors, even good ones. Maybe this wouldn't be the case with an ordinary film, but with VR, the women's firsthand knowledge of the subject at hand makes all the difference.
As the conversation between the two women unfolds, it's evident that Kristina is clearly unsettled by something, and it's not the abortion. The doctor nods her head in understanding, trying to elicit what's bothering her patient.
"The protesters?" she asks.
"Yeah," Kristina responds.
Flashback to 20 minutes earlier: Kristina is in the passenger seat of a vehicle her friend is driving, trying to get safely inside a health clinic center. We hear indistinct religious platitudes spoken through megaphones and a line of protesters waving homemade signs depicting images of aborted fetuses. Then in what seems to be a moment of relief, a man in a reflective yellow mesh safety vest stops the car. Thinking he's an authority figure who might know the way to the clinic, the women ask for directions.
"You're here to pray for at abortion clinic, or you're here to go to the abortion clinic?" he asks.
Soon it's evident that the guy is also an anti-abortion crusader and that he's there solely to talk Kristina out of the procedure. He uses soft-spoken but no less sinister rhetoric to try to get her to another "safe" place so she doesn't leave the clinic after the abortion "hurt and broken."
Witnessing this interaction through VR, I just wanted the friend to hit the accelerator. In a quiet, creepy manner, the man says, "I don't know what your situation is, but there's a more dignifying choice for you as a woman and as a mother." At that point, the friend says that the choice Kristina is making is dignified, and any counseling that she might need is not from him.
Finally, the most disturbing scene opens with the sounds of police sirens and a man repeatedly shouting, "You're a whore!" That's when we find ourselves in a 3D, 360-degree CGI world where the viewer is now the one trying to access the abortion, and it's scary as hell. "Maybe your parents should have aborted you!" the guy yells at us.
Overlapping voices quote fire-and-brimstone Bible passages, followed by another guy contemptuously hollering, "You're a wicked woman! What do you think you're doing here?"
A fat guy in ugly patterned shirtsleeves sneers, "Young lady, the hoodie cannot hide you from your guilt. You cannot hide from God today. God sees you already as a murderer at heart for even coming here."
At this point, I get wobbly — I seriously almost lose my balance with the headset and earphones on. I reach out for an animated woman in an orange shirt, whose thankless job is to escort me away from this kangaroo court and towards safety. Only, she's not really there, and I fall onto the tall man who in real life equipped me with the gear and is making sure I don't mess up the rig or anything. All the while, I'm forced to listen to more insults, and more, and more. My natural inclination is to rush into the clinic, but I can't: they're all in a circle shouting at me, and I can't get away.
"Shame on you, you wicked, pathetic woman!" screams another asshole. "Wicked jezebel feminist! Yeah, you should have been a whore. You shouldn't have been sleeping with every guy at the club. You wicked jezebel!"
At last, the scene draws to a close as a clinic escort, dressed in an orange t-shirt, takes us past the hateful circle of protesters, and the VR experience fades to black. Words appear onscreen: "Dedicated to those who lost their lives in Colorado Springs, CO, on November 27, 2015. And to those whose work to ensure that all women can access care without harassment, intimidation, or violence."
This VR experience comes at a precarious and turbulent time for Planned Parenthood centers around the country. Speaking on behalf of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, press officer Catherine Lozada says, "As the Supreme Court will soon decide Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which could impact a woman's fundamental right to access safe, legal abortion for generations, there's never been a more important time to raise awareness about the very real experiences that some women face when trying to access abortion services in this country."
Across the Line premiered at Sundance in January, and was brought to SXSW last week as part of the festival's VR/AR Experience. But you don't need any kind of VR headgear to watch it (though it definitely helps). Anyone can see it right here.