Paula Eiselt spoke with Solzy at the Movies ahead of the premiere of her new film, Under G-d, at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Eiselt returns to the festival a year after the premiere of Aftershock, which she co-directed with Tonya Lewis Lee. This time, the filmmaker is back with another personal film–a documentary short on the Jewish response to the Dobbs decision.
Under G-d is screening with the Documentary Shorts Program and will premiere on January 22.
It’s so nice to talk with you again about one of the most important films anyone will watch this year.
Paula Eiselt: Wow. Thank you for saying that. That’s really meaningful. Thank you.
You’re welcome. I told the publicist this but I hope every legislator in the country watches just because it’s so important.
Paula Eiselt: Oh, wow. Thank you. It’s crazy. I’ll let you ask away and I’ll get into my spiel.
After missing out on the in-person premiere last year, how honored are you to be returning to Sundance with Under G-d?
Paula Eiselt: Incredibly honored. It’s surreal actually to be at the festival twice two years in a row is amazing. No words for that. I’m just incredibly grateful and honored by that selection and as you said, to now have the opportunity to go in person feels incredible. It’s like I get like second chance in a different way.
The two films are so complimentary in that reproductive justice is all one conversation—whether it is abortion rights or maternal mortality, we’re talking about the same thing. It’s an honor and an amazing opportunity to get to come back with Under G-d and continue that conversation.
At what point did you start looking into making a documentary?
Paula Eiselt: When the Dobbs decision came down in July, I was heavy in Aftershock release and all that. I wasn’t necessarily looking to get into production during that time but my dear friend and the executive producer of the film, Rahdi Taylor, called me days after that decision came. Like everyone else, we’re devastated, panicked, and grieving this loss of rights. She was like, as artists, we need to do something. You need to make something. I’ll get this funded. At the time, I knew it was crazy. I was like, this is a crazy idea because I honestly don’t know how it’s possible in any way to get something first starting at the end of the summer. It just seemed impossible but Rahdi was true to her word. She got that funding and I dove in thinking the whole time how crazy it was. We worked at lightning speed. Lightning!
I have an amazing producing partner, Darcy McKinnon, who also came on in the same way of just wanting to put our despair into something actionable, something that we can do instead of just sitting in the grief. We wanted to put into action. We were all really just crazy to try to pull this off. I didn’t know what kind of story I was gonna get, let alone Sundance. It was just like, can we create something so quickly? Apparently, we did. It was a crazy idea and I still think it’s crazy that we did it.
How did you balance the initial work on the film with the opening of Aftershock in July?
Paula Eiselt: Balance is a funny word. I don’t think balance exists. It was just making it work. It was and still is just a crazy time—every minute of the day was accounted for. If I wasn’t doing something for Afteshock, I was doing something for this film. Thankfully, a silver lining of Covid is that there are certain interviews that I was able to do remotely so that was very key. There are certain ones that it doesn’t work for, but for the ones that I was able to do at my desk, while the crew was there in person, was very helpful in terms of logistics and travel and making that work.
I think it’s also just having an amazing team of people who have a shared vision and who were all flexible and willing to make it work. It was just survival mode—filmmaking, not sleeping, not eating, just go, go, go. You have that passion, that light in you, and you just kind of do everything to make it work. Balance would’ve been a nice thing to have. It was just surviving, to be honest.
I noticed that the film features the lawsuits in both Indiana and Florida. Was the Kentucky lawsuit filed too late to be included in the film?
Paula Eiselt: Yeah, it was filed too late. The amazing thing is, as you see with the Indiana case, there are constantly updates and there are more and more cases being filed. I can’t say in this interview right now but probably in 10 days, I can (note: this interview was conducted on January 11). There’s another really big lawsuit that’s going to be filed. It’s really, really big. The point of showcasing this use of RFRA—flipping this script—is that it can be replicated. That’s the point. This can happen and it will be happening state by state. I expect and hope to see many of these lawsuits coming through. That’s why I made the film.
Also, you’ll see this—again, I can’t talk about, which is frustrating, but in this other lawsuit, they’re using the free exercise clause, which is saying that everyone has their freedom to practice their religion so if Christian fundamentalists can say abortion is an infringement of their religion, as we’ve seen in the film, Jews, Muslims, other people of faith, and non-fundamentalist Christians can say, well, the ban’s infringement on our religious freedom. Another part of that is the establishment clause, which is saying that America can never be a Christian nation or have an established religion. That’s another avenue for some of these lawsuits to file on the establishment clause of the First Amendment and we’ll see some of those, too. I dunno if I’m getting too much in the legalese weeds, but those are the frameworks for these lawsuits that are gonna spread across the country.
It’s ironic that these conservatives using the RFRAs for years for their anti-LGBTQ bigotry only to see it come back and bit them in the tuchas for their anti-abortion views.
Paula Eiselt: Oh my G-d. As Marcy Hamilton—she’s one of the experts in the film. She’s a professor at Penn and has been studying and kind of fighting against RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) her whole career because it’s a bad law. As she says in the film, she would never guess that she would be using the law in a lawsuit because her whole career is saying that it’s a bad law.
Now she’s—this is the only option to say, well, you know what? If you’re gonna pass this bad law and you’re gonna use it to oppress, well, we’re also gonna use it and we’re gonna flip the script on it. Conservatives and fundamentalists—it’s very hard for them to argue against it because they use that law so this is something that’s a real threat to them.
While I feel that the film at its current length is already powerful, did you ever consider expanding the short into a feature-length documentary?
Paula Eiselt: Yeah. That has been discussed and thought and thought about. There’s so much to say about so many different ways that this can be extended, whether it’s through these lawsuits, whether it’s through interfaith perspectives on abortion. What the anti-choice movement has done is create this mythical binary that says that if you’re a person of faith, then you must be anti-abortion. They’ve tried to do that and then you see that actually, that’s not true. The majority of Americans who are people of faith do support safe access to abortion.
Being person of faith or a believer doesn’t mean that you are anti-abortion and they’ve tried to create that binary, like religious people don’t like abortion and secular people love abortion. That’s the simplicity of what they’ve tried to do and we’re saying that no, that’s not how it works. There’s so much more to say about this. Abortion is a human right and it’s a very nuanced topic that isn’t treated with the nuance that it should be. The conversation about terminating pregnancies, but also when life begins, is something that many humans grapple with and think about. I think there’s just so much to say about this.
What are you looking for in a distributor?
Paula Eiselt: We’re in talks with a bunch of folks. We’re looking for obviously as wide of reach as possible because, as you kindly said, we feel like everyone needs to see this film and that it presents a view of the legal battle with abortion but also, as I was saying, it destigmatizes abortion and also shatters stereotypes of people of faith and abortion. I think that it’s so fruitful for robust conversations. Ideally, of course, we want digital and just wide, wide reaching distribution.
We are also going to be launching a big impact campaign that will be announced soon. In addition to mainstream distribution, we’ll be having our own impact strategy so we can have event screenings around the film, bring together all the amazing groups that we’ve been working with and more in both in reproductive justice and Jewish groups and other faith groups, and use the film as a tool to screen across the country. There’s going to be the mainstream distribution and then the impact campaign along with it.
What do you hope people take away from watching the film?
Paula Eiselt: I hope it sparks conversation and I hope it empowers people that while our federal government and our Supreme Court is surely corrupt right now and not protecting the rights of so many people in this country, we have the power. The people have the power. We see that voting works and that it will have a greater effect locally if you vote in local elections. Now that abortion rights specifically are in state hands, we have a lot of power to ensure our rights. I hope it empowers citizens, regular people to be involved.
I hope it empowers lawyers and other legal strategists to use these laws in creative ways and figure out a way to ensure reproductive justice for all. I also hope, as I said earlier, it allows people of faith and possibly people who don’t normally engage in this conversation to feel like they can—that there are other faith people who are pro-choice and that it is gives space for a nuanced conversation when there normally isn’t one.
Under G-d will hold its world premiere during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the Documentary Shorts Program.
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