Driven by curiosity and a passion for social justice, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Cynthia Lowen uses the power of story to investigate difficult issues that often go overlooked; her debut documentary feature, 2011’s “Bully”, investigated a crisis of suicide motivated by bullying in American schools. It was nominated for two Emmys, shortlisted for the Oscars, screened at The White House and received a DuPont-Columbia Award for Excellence in Journalism. Her second documentary, “Netizens”, explores the world of cyber-harassment and online stalking, the lack of legal protections online, and the effect that rampant digital abuse has on women.
Lowen’s latest film, “Battleground”, offers a timely investigation into the motives behind American anti-abortion activists. “Battleground” premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last week and could not have come at a more pivotal moment, as nearly 50 years of abortion legislation is projected to be overturned. Lowen’s film follows three high-profile anti-abortion activists over the course of 2020, tracing their efforts to restructure the Supreme Court in favor of the anti-abortion minority.
Lowen’s documentary handles a divisive topic with grace, presenting opposing viewpoints with admirable objectivity. She spoke with Cinema Femme about how she was able to create trust on set, how she crafts a narrative structure for her documentaries, the merits of juggling producing with directing, and what she wishes she’d known when she first started making films.
Can you talk about your background and how you got into filmmaking?
Since I was very young I would write stories and always knew that I wanted to go into some form of writing. I majored in creative writing in college and then got my MFA in poetry, of all things. I worked at a poetry publishing press called Four Way Books for many years after I graduated. Around 2007-2008, I really wanted my work to have a much greater reach, to be more involved in contemporary social justice issues, and to break wider in my professional life outside the poetry sphere. I happened to see a film at the Tribeca Film Festival called “Favela Rising”, and had this kind of ‘ah-ha!’ moment during the screening of the film as they were bringing the subjects on stage. I was just so moved by how the film had taken these people’s life experiences and crafted such a powerful work — I felt really motivated and compelled by it. So that was the moment where I was like, ‘I really need to figure out how to get into documentary filmmaking.’
From there I had an internship on a History Channel production about a Mexican American marine who was killed in the Battle of Fallujah, and then from there I produced some smaller things and teamed up with filmmaker Lee Hirsch to produce and write “Bully”. So that was the circuitous journey. And then after “Bully”, I directed, produced, and wrote “Netizens”, which is on HBO now, and here we are at “Battleground”.
What motivates you to take on social justice issues?
I think generally it starts with a feeling of, ‘That seems really messed up! What’s going on?’ So for “Bully” it was a rash of suicides for very young people in 2008-2009 that compelled us to get much deeper into what was happening with young people in schools, because these suicides were being linked for the first time to young people having been bullied. At that moment, it felt like the country was kind of waking up to the fact that bullying isn’t just ‘kids will be kids, boys will be boys,’ but that there was something really serious going on that needed to be unpacked.
For “Netizens”, I remember waking up one morning and hearing on the news about Anita Sarkeesian and how she had to flee her home because she was receiving such violent threats online. She was one of many women at that time in the gaming industry who were receiving violent threats, and there seemed to be very little recourse, there wasn’t a lot of intervention from law enforcement, and again it was that feeling of, ‘What’s going on here? It seems really messed up and something that we should investigate a little bit.’
Similarly with “Battleground”, after Alabama was the first state to pass the total abortion ban, I went to Alabama cause I thought ‘That seems really boldly unconstitutional and it shouldn’t be possible.’ Going down to Alabama and meeting with pro-choice advocates and people one the ground, I then really felt like I needed to take a step back and understand — how is it possible that 1 in 4 people who can get pregnant in America will terminate a pregnancy, the vast majority of Americans support access to abortion, and yet you have this minority of people who have been very successful in advancing their will in policy and legislation? And it was kind of like that same ‘What is going on here?’ Genuinely out of curiosity, among other things, I just want to understand this, to have an understanding of how this is even possible.
You have a tendency to produce and direct your films — do you prefer one over the other? Can you talk a bit about the choice to do both, and the challenges inherent to each?
I think the reality of the situation for most independent filmmakers and for most documentary film directors is that generally, in order to get a project to the point where it’s getting funded, it’s getting interest from distributors and broadcasters for a pre-acquisition, you have to really advance the project pretty far. Getting early funding for documentary film projects is so hard — you always have to have a proof of concept, which makes it a prerequisite that as a documentary film director you also have to have really good, solid producing skills, because often at the beginning of a project, when you don’t have the money to have a great big producing team, a lot of that falls on your shoulders to really get the project off the ground; to get it to the point where you can get the funding, so that you can hire additional producers.
I enjoy producing, I think it’s a really important skill to have to be able to speak with potential contributors. I think you have to be able to speak about your project and present you project to the people you’re asking to participate, to share their lives, share their stories, give you their time — that part of producing [is so intertwined] with being a director. You have to be able to represent what you’re doing and what you’re asking people. And the same with asking funders to get behind you and take a financial risk. Being able to make the argument — why this project, why should you take this risk, why now, what is the vision for what this is going to do in the world — is a part of the job of producing that I very much enjoy, and that, for me, is hard to separate out from my job of directing.
I also want to give a huge shoutout to the incredible producers on this project — producer Rebecca Stern, co-producer Steffie Van Rhee. They were also the producers on my last film, “Neitzens”. It’s so great when you have a team that works together like clockwork. They’re such talented producers and they’ve put their whole lives and minds and hearts into this film. And we also have several incredible executive producers — Nicole Shipley, Ryan Harrington, Anne Harnisch, Dexter Braff and Jeff Sobrato. It takes a big producing team.
You found so many diverse interview subjects, from high profile anti-abortionists to a seemingly random woman in Texas who had to overcome a lot of hurdles to get an abortion during the pandemic. What is your process for seeking out participants and deciding who to include?
When deciding who are the right voices to tell this story, I think it helps to be able to see a path or a journey for the people ahead. It became very clear early on in 2020 when I started approaching the anti-abortion contributors in the film, that they were… on a mission. 2020, for them, was the year when everything was in the balance. And that was something that both sides agreed on — pro-choice people agreed that 2020 was gonna be the year that decided the future of abortion in America. And the reason that people felt that way was because so much was riding on the Supreme Court, and Trump had also done so much to advance judges at the federal level. It was an election year and abortion was very much on the ballot, and the anti-abortion movement was really rallying their people to seize having Trump as president to advance their agenda as much as they could. So looking broadly at story, it was clear that there was gonna be a lot that we could tell over [the course of] 2020. It turned out to be a lot more than we could have even anticipated in January of that year, but it was clear [that the] structure was kind of already there.
I knew we wanted to film people who were leading this anti-abortion charge; Marjorie Dannenfelser, who is the president of the Susan B. Anthony list, is indisputably, if not the most powerful anti-abortion activist in the country, among the absolute most-influential, well connected, well-funded. She has, as you see in the film, direct lines to the president, direct lines to Mitch McConnell. Her input on policy is something that anti-abortion policymakers very much look to and rely upon. She was someone who I felt could really tell the policy angle.
If you read any major media story about an abortion protest or a case at the Supreme Court, you’re gonna see photos and signs from Students for Life of America (SFLA). They’re really visible. For me they represented a very different and surprising dimension of the anti-abortion movement, which was youth. It’s the largest youth anti-abortion movement in the country. And what I saw there with Kristan Hawkins and that organization is something that — again, with documentary films, you want to learn, you want to surprise people, you want to challenge preconceived notions – to me [SFLA] was all those things. I didn’t realize that there was a huge anti-abortion youth movement and that they are showing up at the Supreme Court, and at every state house whenever there’s anti-abortion legislation. They are kind of like the vanguard of what the movement is trying to do, to broaden new voters who are coming in. They’re trying to really build up single-issue voters, they’re trying to recruit more young people to the movement, and they’re also using these young people as the sort of foot soldiers — as Kristan says, ‘I want to see how many of you I can get to cut class to go to the state capitol to lobby on behalf of anti-abortion legislation.’ That was surprising to me, that that is a key part of the anti-abortion movement’s organizing — what they see as the future of their organizing.
With Terrisa Bukovinac and her organization Pro-Life San Francisco, again it was like, ‘Oh! That’s not something I expected.’ Not something I’d ever encountered before — someone who is an atheist, who came to their anti-abortion position after leaving the church and becoming an atheist. Somebody who has progressive values around certain issues and yet is anti abortion. To me that was a very interesting confluence of things that I think most people would assume are totally at odds. I wanted to learn more about that.
All three women are dynamic people, and they’re people who I think believe in what they’re doing quite fiercely. And then for the pro-choice activists and advocates, it was really important to have contributors who understand the anti-abortion environment and cultural world, who came out of that and who’s life experiences brought them to be pro-choice. For Jenna, Samantha, and Lauren, who is the anonymous woman in Texas, all of them came from very conservative backgrounds, their family are anti-abortion, they were largely raised in the church, and they themselves had had anti-choice perspectives, and yet their life experiences brought them to realize that abortion is a right that cannot and should not be stripped away from women. And I think they speak very compellingly about why that is, and at the same time they understand the stigma and the social pressure… there’s a scene where we meet young [anti abortion] organizers from SFLA, and they are very earnest and heartfelt in their anti-abortion perspectives, and yet you get the sense that they just maybe haven’t had those experiences that would bring them to change their minds and follow more of a path of someone like Jenna or Lauren or Samantha.
You got such intimate access into their lives and I thought the film did a great job of presenting the issue in an objective way. What skills do you employ as a journalist and a storyteller to evoke such candidness and set up a sense of trust with people who’s views may be dissimilar from your own?
I think it was important to me to just be able to listen. And going back to the impetus for making the film – I was just really curious. I just really wanted to get it. And all of the things I had heard growing up in pro-choice communities, not having a lot of anti-abortion folks in my community — I certainly have anti-abortion folks in my family, my mom was raised Catholic and she has relatives who are very much on the other side of this — some of the things I’d heard was, ‘Oh, they hate women.’ That there’s a fundamental hatred of women in the anti-abortion movement, that’s the seed, that’s the core. And I think I wasn’t satisfied with that explanation. I thought that was sort of painting it with a very broad brush.
I just wanted to hear where they were coming from. I felt like it was important to do that, human being to human being, respectfully. I was interested in listening. I think even if you disagree profoundly with what a contributor in your film is saying, they’re still taking a risk in [participating] — even more so if they sense that you might disagree with them. I sensed that all the anti-abortion contributors in my film probably sensed [my views], like ‘She’s from New York, she’s not particularly religious from what we can tell’…. They had every reason to believe I was on the opposite side, and yet they were willing to talk to me about their perspectives. So I feel like, with them being willing to take that risk, and be honest about what their opinions were, I owed it to them to be respectful in listening.
What were some of the main challenges and takeaways for you in making “Battleground”?
The challenge in this one, for me, wasn’t really hearing things I disagree with, or being around people I really disagree with. It’s ok! We can disagree! Honestly the biggest challenge was getting the funding to be able to keep going. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to stop filming over the course of this really, really intense year that just didn’t stop. The faith of our funders enabled us to do that. But this film took a unique approach to talking about abortion, and I think taking an unconventional approach to things makes [funders hesitate]. But in the end, we were able to convince everybody that even if — especially if — you disagree with the anti-abortion movement, these are forces that we can no longer deny have a lot of influence over every American’s life. We are on the absolute brink of Roe being overturned any day now, and I think as hard as it can be to hear and see (if you feel the opposite way), we kind of have to look. We have to see what they’re doing and understand who they are… if we’re gonna confront it, we have to understand it.
As you mentioned earlier, you work with a lot of women filmmakers — why is that, and how do you seek out other women filmmakers to work with?
There are so many incredible women working in the film industry. We had women producers, all women cinematographers, women sound-recordists; both for this project and for “Neitzens”, the team has largely been women and that’s because women are insanely talented. I want to lift up women and non-binary people working in the film industry… but the choice to work with the individuals on this film was a choice to work with the most talented people who are making films today.
I think having networks like Film Fatales, having some of the meeting groups that are part of the Producers Guild, having opportunities like Film Independent labs, and the International Documentary Association is doing a lot of things to really bring this community together and make sure we’re meeting each other and know about each other’s work. I think those opportunities are so important and I hope that they continue to be developed and fostered. These organizations make it easy for us to talk to each other, like — ‘Hey, who’d you work with for this, who was your sound mixer for this?’ — creating a lot more of those networking opportunities.
What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker — what’s something you wish you had known when you were first starting out?
I have such a nerdy answer for that: Always use a lock-it box! Always use a lock-it box to make sure your camera is synced to your sound! Make sure your sound recordist has one as part of their gear kit, cause it will make your life and syncing your audio so much easier.