Interview with Diana Whitten, Director of Vessel

I was thrilled to learn about the groundbreaking film Vessel: a new documentary telling the story of Rebecca Gomperts, a brave doctor who works to help people who need abortions in countries where the procedure is outlawed or under strict attack by providing legal, safe offshore abortions — on a boat. 

Vessel_1I was even more excited to learn that the film would be screened in my home of Philadelphia Jan. 21 (tickets are free, but reserve your spot here and join the Facebook event here) and that Director/Producer Diana Whitten would be attending for a post-screening panel discussion. The screening is being brought to Philadelphia by The Slought Foundation, Women’s Medical Fund, Penn Family Planning and Pregnancy Loss Center, Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania and other community partners.

I was lucky enough to interview her about the screening and the film. Our conversation is below.

When did you first hear about Women on Waves? How did you decide you wanted to make Vessel to share their work with others?

When I first learned about Women on Waves, I was intrigued by their use of the offshore — typically a space exploited for crime or personal gain — as a space to advance social justice. I also thought the metaphor inherent to their work was beautiful: a woman leaving one realm of sovereignty to reclaim her own. [Rebecca Gomperts'] approach to activism is creative, direct, unfaltering, and unapologetic, and I thought her story could offer new inroads to the “abortion debate” — a conversation many people consider inaccessible or impolite. Personally, I felt so motivated by the approach, and I knew a film about them had the potential to mobilize audiences.

What response did you get from colleagues and supporters when you began to talk about this work?

Initially it was difficult to get the film off the ground — I was a first time filmmaker exploring a highly controversial issue by way of an extremely radical character. Also, in 2007, when I started fundraising for Vessel, the landscape was very different in the States. Many people here had never even heard of the abortion pill, nor predicted how meaningless Roe v. Wade would quickly become. Due to recent legislative attacks on reproductive healthcare, the situation for U.S. women in many states is now comparable to that of women in countries where abortion is illegal, and American women are looking to similar methods to terminate pregnancies as those used by women in illegal settings. This is no longer a foreign story. If I were beginning the project now, I might have a different experience in securing funding and partners, given how dire the situation is now in the States, and how relevant this story is.

What did you learn making the film that you did not anticipate from the outset?

One thing I learned is how hard it is to make a film!  This was my first feature, so every step was (and is) an education. Like many people, I also knew very little about medical abortion and the desperate, vast need that exists in places where women don’t have safe access.

Given the sensitive nature of Vessel, did you have to adjust your technique or the technique of your crew in any way?

Whenever we were in a sensitive situation and a woman was uncomfortable with the camera, I would turn it off, no questions asked.

Are there other films or documentaries about abortion access that inspired you?

Around the time of our premiere, Chicken & Egg Pictures initiated a Reel Reproductive Justice cohort, currently consisting of seven films in various stages of production, all exploring themes and issues related to abortion access. Several of these films have inspired me: After Tiller by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, and Dawn Porter’s Trapped (in production), for example. As a filmmaker in general, Errol Morris inspires me, with his interviews that present very polarizing people as nuanced and involved in the very human negotiation between good and evil.

Recently there was much media attention on threats made to theaters who might opt to screen The Interview. I thought about Vessel — not only has the film also received terrorist threats, but I read about at least one screening where there was an actual attack (though it seemed all those attending the film were safe and unharmed). How do you deal with these threats and aggression from anti-choice activists? Have you personally had to face them? Did you have any thoughts when reading about the Interview controversy because of your own experience?

A screening of Vessel in Sweden was attacked by three masked men who threw a smoke bomb into the theater and trapped the audience.  No one was harmed, but everyone was terrified. We had anticipated protests to the film, and security is generally discussed before screenings — especially in the States where the anti-abortion movement is so violent — but the smoke bombing in Sweden was surprising. The film community was the first to respond with statements of solidarity, and the Goteborg festival in Sweden immediately invited Vessel to screen in their program. The Swedish government followed suit with a special screening of the film in their Parliament. The Sony case was obviously a different ballgame in terms of scope and complexity, but in general I don’t think artists and the industry can afford to censor themselves in response to threats of terror. In line with themes in our film, it’s about having the strength of a network backing you up when people try to intimidate you into silence, and making sure you do your part to contribute to that supportive network.

For the screening in Philadelphia, a host of organizations are partnering to bring the film to the University of Pennsylvania on the eve of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. You will also be attending the screening for a post-show panel discussion. Do you like to screen the film in conjunction with community organizations? What are the benefits?

Definitely. The film, like the ship, aims to mobilize and energize, and my hope is that audiences leave screenings feeling empowered and inspired to join the movement at their local levels. We have collaborated with Film Sprout to launch the film on a 100-city international tour of screenings intended to provide a forum for further debate, discussion and education about the challenges facing reproductive healthcare. Any group, large or small, can host a screening and use the event to raise visibility and funds for their own efforts.

What are you looking forward to with the digital release of the film?

Vessel will be available on Video-on-Demand platforms on January 13th, and I’m thrilled that people across North America will be able to see the film! We will have an international release a month later. The potential reach of this is beyond the wildest dreams I had for the film when I started.

Why did you choose filmmaking as a means of expression?

Growing up, my sisters and I would stage revamped fairy tales with homemade sets from cardboard boxes, costumes from a basket of my mother’s colorful leftovers from the seventies, music, special effects — all shot chronologically on my father’s Betamax camera. For me, it wasn’t just that I grew up watching movies; I grew up creating them, for fun. In high school I got a camera of my own, and documenting became a way to process my experiences and explore perspective, and to offer something fun and sometimes lovely to the people around me. I learned that art could be political, and that my visual skill set and love of process could be applied toward the very base goal of making the world a better place.

Is there anything else you would like audiences to know about the film?

  • Trailer is here: (there is an embed on the bottom right)
  • The film premieres at IFC on January 9th in NYC and then will be available on demand beginning January 13th.  You can pre-order the film at:
  • Press kit here with photos:
  • Film Sprout has launched the film on a 100-city international tour of screenings intended to provide a forum for further debate, discussion and education about the challenges facing reproductive healthcare in the United States and beyond. Tour stops include Montreal, Vancouver, Stockholm, Cambridge, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Antonio, New Orleans, Santa Barbara, and Aspen among others. Students, universities, nonprofits, clinics and activists interested in hosting their own screenings should contact
  • We are also encouraging folks to “get on board” for women’s rights (right side of the homepage). You can join the mailing list/movement on the website and it will direct you to the different ways you can get involved.

Header image credit: IndieWire

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.


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