White Lies (Rotberg, 2013)

White Lies (Rotberg, 2013) April 22, 2014


I suppose I am pro-life.

I don’t know that I have ever said so publicly, the ambivalence signaled by “I suppose” being deliberate. That ambivalence is less a product of intellectual uncertainty than my perception of the almost unbearable gap between how that phrase is so often used and what it truly signifies.

There is not much point in denying or hiding the fact that as I’ve grown older I’ve drifted into a predisposition towards favoring outcomes or processes that are more likely to result in life over death–ones that give life a chance. Am I absolutist enough in this predisposition or attempts to see it enacted in policy decisions to satisfy those who wear such a label with less ambivalence than I? Am I restrained enough in this predisposition to reassure those who care more than I do that the rights and privileges which they value as highly as life itself are safe from corporate or personal encroachment? Who knows? Ambivalence rarely pleases anyone.

That’s probably one reason why there are so few genuinely engaging movies about abortion. Most interesting dramas have at least a bit of internal conflict. But in melodramas about polarizing issues, if such internal conflicts are too heavy, the drama risks alienating those viewers who may perceive such misgivings as signaling uncertainty. If they are too light, it risks accusations of treating a grave matter too superficially. Rare is the film that seriously challenges its characters to feel reservations about their position, much less face them.

For a little while, White Lies felt like it might be such a film. Paraiti (Whirimako Black) is a Maori healer, respected by her own people but scorned and despised by the whites in power around her (including some very racist nuns).  When she is asked to help a white woman, Rebecca Vickers (Anotnia Prebble), “get rid of” an unborn child that she “can’t” have before her husband returns from traveling, the answer is an easy “no.”

A tragic incident with another patient gets Paraiti to change her mind, but we aren’t entirely sure why. It seems unlikely that a woman of her conviction would be swayed by anger, but perhaps the last incident was the spark that finally set her rage ablaze. Perhaps she is acting subversively, confident that her ways are so little understood that she can do as she thinks best under the cover of following orders. The middle section of the film works the best because the secrets clouding each character’s motivations (and the foreign nature of the Maori culture for American viewers) prompts us to do what so few issue films ask us to: reserve judgment until we better understand what is happening and why.

Eventually the secrets have to come out, though, and once they do the film just flounders. I kept waiting for Paraiti (or the film) to draw a parallel between her stated claim that whether Rebecca lives or dies is of no concern to her and those who have no room in their mental calculus for the life of an unborn child. Those who are pro-choice may struggle to see the issue as one of competing interests, since doing so tacitly acknowledges a moral imperative where there may not be a legal one. But conversely, those, like Paraiti, who privilege the life of the child absolutely over that of the mother are forced to admit that not all life is equal, that society (and individuals in it) routinely make judgments about whose life is more valuable. But instead of allowing the seeds of self-contradiction to flower into genuine moral conflict, the film steps back and makes an easier and more obvious statement about racism.

Plus, the film’s big reveal comes both too early and too late. By the time it does come the audience has probably guessed where the film is going, but there is another half hour or so of recriminations and hand wringing before the characters that circumstance has flung together drift back apart.

In spite of the disappointing second half, the film ends on a strong note. The final scene, played over the credits, is silent, but speaks louder than any character’s words.

The title White Lies suggested to me that the film would be about the ways in which we are often dishonest with ourselves, and how such seemingly small dishonesties can expand and increase until they are the foundation of once unthinkable actions. Some great moral films have been built around such a thesis–The Godfather comes to mind. Really, though, the only white lie in the film is the title itself. It’s too cute by half, and the film doesn’t think there is anything small about the lies its characters tell.  How much easier is it to make an unequivocal statement about colonialism than a nuanced statement about abortion? A lot easier, apparently. By the end, the film trades the possibility of difficult moral insight for the ease of moral indignation. By picking a scapegoat–racism–that everyone can more or less agree is bad, the film allows everyone to get what they want and walk away feeling vindicated. Perhaps the audience gets what it wants, too, if what it wants is to not have to confront the fact that abortion stories in real life almost never end with everyone satisfied.

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