The 13 Hours That Changed Texas in Shouting Down Midnight

SXSW documentary stands by Wendy Davis during her filibuster

Shouting Down Midnight (Photo by Todd Wiseman, The Texas Tribune)

If you were there, the title of Gretchen Stoeltje's documentary needs no explanation. If you weren't, and you know who Wendy Davis is and why, but you didn't watch it unfold in real time, Shouting Down Midnight will get you up to speed quite effectively. But then-state Sen. Davis, D-Ft. Worth, delivered her epic filibuster to thwart the last draconian abortion bill (the one before Senate Bill 8, or maybe the one before that) back in June of 2013, and Stoeltje's been making this movie ever since, so it's gratefully not just an episode of Progressive History Channel, but a story about people for whom that day was the beginning of an arc that has not yet ended.

"When the filibuster happened, I thought that was just riveting and amazing and someone should make a movie about that," Stoeltje said. She was most drawn to the letters from those once pregnant throughout the state that Davis read aloud for much of her 13-hour speech: "What I heard in those letters was the history of abortion in this country, and thought I could weave those people in to provide a historical sense of what was happening on the floor that day. And that's what I started out to do."

Then she met Carole Wall, one of those letter writers, "and realized that her whole life had changed, based on the experience of hearing her letter, read out loud. She had really carried a heavy burden of grief and shame that she wasn't shaking, until that day." Carole is now a reproductive rights activist herself, remaining "really engaged as a citizen in the policymaking process. ... I thought I would be talking about the past, but instead I found this badass who's just moving forward and trying to help others and take action and not be intimidated by the fact that, in fact, the policy landscape is getting more and more depressing. It's not stopping."

Carole's not the only one; we also meet Sadie Hernandez, from the Rio Grande Valley, who stood up to defend Planned Parenthood when it was slowly but surely defunded from Medicaid, first spotted by Stoeltje holding up a sign in front of the Governor's Mansion: "WE LOVE CANCER." And Krithika Shamanna, who was first spotted by Davis' Deeds Not Words organization as she sought to have free menstrual products made available for her classmates at Westwood High School in far North Austin. "They're not letting the bastards get them down," Stoeltje said, "and they're also finding a lot of strength in community."

How do you turn what was a feature-length historical doc, plus a short-feature-length series of interconnected profiles of these four women (Davis being the fourth), into one feature-length narrative that jumps around in time? Shouting Down Midnight uses archival footage from a wide array of sources – The Texas Tribune livestream of Davis' filibuster and on-the-scene videos of its aftermath (including the actual shouting-down-midnight part), fair-use clips from the broadcast and cable channels, sit-downs with principal players that were originally shot for other projects, and much else. The rights-and-permissions chase to clear all of this stuff for use "was very, very technical and painful," Stoeltje said, and executed in a rush as the film neared its premiere date.

In an interesting way, this you-are-there immediacy from an Austin filmmaker deletes the filter of Texotica that permeates after-the-fact narratives of the news from the Great State; these women and their allies in the thousands, shaking the Pink Dome and breaking the internet, could really be anyone, anywhere, fighting for basic human rights. "I'm assuming we're gonna have this problem until the human race dies out," Stoeltje said, "because there's some obsession with controlling reproduction. It's been happening forever. So I always felt it was my biggest help, and also a big challenge, to tell [the story] through the events of the day, which were very specific to here, but trying to tie it to a bigger human experience."

Documentary Spotlight

Shouting Down Midnight

World Premiere

Thursday, March 17, 6pm, AFS Cinema

Read more of the Chronicle's decades of reproductive rights reporting here.

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SXSW 2022, SXSW Film 2022, Shouting Down Midnight, Wendy Davis, Gretchen Stoeltje, Krithika Shamanna, Deeds Not Words, Sadie Hernandez, Planned Parenthood, abortion rights

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