VR Documentary Invites You to an Intimate Conversation on Abortion
Making the choice
By Lina Fisher, Fri., March 11, 2022
When you pop on the Oculus virtual reality headset to watch "The Choice," you're greeted by a young woman with blue braids sitting comfortably in jeans and a sweatshirt about 3 feet away from you. A black void surrounds you both with soothing music, and you're offered some get-to-know-you questions to ask: Where are you from? What do you do?
The woman you're meeting is Kristen, a nanny and activist in Austin who chose, facing life-threatening complications, to have a late-term abortion – a choice which is the subject of empathetic scrutiny in this short film from Polish Canadian director and sociologist Joanne Popinska and cinematographer Tom C. Hall. Popinska and Hall describe "The Choice" as a sort of sociological experiment to shift anti-choice biases using VR technology: Popinska said, "We are always thinking, how are we going to use technology to tell the stories that we want to tell?" First and foremost, she added, "I wanted you to feel close to her. When you hear somebody like a politician or an activist talking about [abortion], it comes in one ear and goes out the other, you don't feel a connection with the person."
The isolation of a VR headset eliminates the communal element of watching a film with outside influence, and interactive questions further a sense of reciprocal intimate conversation with Kristen. "I was like, ‘Oh my god, it looks like I'm talking to myself,'" Kristen recalled of the first time she watched it. "That was the moment I knew that this was powerful, that this was going to do good. I really feel like [it] forces viewers to walk a mile in my moccasins; you're not thinking, ‘I'm in a video game.'"
As personal as abortion is, trust between Popinska, Hall, and their interviewees was paramount. Popinska began reaching out to abortion access foundations in Canada in 2018, gathering written accounts for the film's website, and printing posters to distribute to clinics calling for anyone willing to tell their story on camera. Kristen responded to the call, and after a year of talking the filmmakers flew to Austin for the interview during SXSW 2020, right under the pandemic wire. Popinska said she offered an abortion psychologist's free services to each subject, and before the interview met with them to go through the questions – she had prepared 100 for Kristen, whose interview lasted four hours. Kristen added that she was "nervous that I didn't represent myself well, because sometimes I ramble. But I reached out to [Joanne] and she'd be like, ‘I want it to be authentic, so if you ramble, good!'" Popinska tells interviewees they can rescind consent, even during the editing process: "The most important part is to establish this trust."
Though Kristen's story happened five years ago, the film remains painfully relevant. Popinska's home country of Poland effectively banned abortion last year, and Texas' Senate Bill 8 has provoked a national battle that may possibly overturn Roe v. Wade. But Popinska and Hall have hope: Popinska said if they can secure the funding to continue making "The Choice" into a series, having already interviewed others in Canada and Austin, they want to expand to more of the U.S. and Poland and create an impact campaign, offering the film to different organizations for educational purposes. "We think our hypothesis that it expands people's horizons when they watch it is true," says Hall. "And at SXSW we'll be able to test that with an explicitly American audience."
Sunday-Tuesday, March 13-15, 11am-6pm, Convention Center
Read more of the Chronicle's decades of reproductive rights reporting here.