The Janes

Sundance 2022: The Janes Review

The Janes marks an essential act of recovery. This doc takes a past movement known only through word of mouth and makes it present. The film is an historical record of how one group of women in 1960s Chicago, known only as Jane, took back their bodily autonomy as part of the fight for abortion rights.

This was a time before the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision made abortions legal in the United States. Women who wanted (or needed) to terminate a pregnancy were at the mercy of back street operators or the mafia. Some chose to do it themselves—with often horrific results. No matter the method, it meant that many women were unnecessarily harmed, both mentally and physically.

Using intimate interviews and archival footage, co-directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes unravel this urgent and, sadly, still pertinent tale. Women share extraordinarily painful memories of their personal experiences and those of friends and family. The featured interviews are breathtaking in their candour, detailed and vivid.

As they eventually describe setting up their own network and clinic, they recall the equally difficult experiences of every woman they helped. They assisted whoever they could, with each woman receiving their counselling and support no matter her financial circumstances.

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The Janes is a fascinating account of how women took back power from the men around them. Many of these women were originally part of the civil rights movement, but thanks to the “testosterone driven” control exerted by some male leaders, they soon departed. Luckily their desire to change the world around them was not subdued.

As the women recount how they became affected by the terrible realities of illegal abortions, a picture of the network begins to form. And while the group originally depended on sympathetic males, often their partners or doctors they heard about, they eventually found a way of taking control of the entire system (albeit in their own underground manner).

Stylistically, this might sound like your average talking-head-with-archival-footage doc. In other hands, it would be. But to their credit, Lessin and Pildes keep things moving quickly and with surprising energy, helped out by some very lively editing and pacing. In fact, there’s a fiery spirit that runs through the whole film—a fitting match to the bravery exhibited by its subjects.

The Janes chronicles an inspiring and courageous collective. And it is important that we finally get to acknowledge that. What is also to be applauded is the way that both the subjects—and the filmmakers themselves—are honest about the greater social realities that existed for the various women involved.

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The Janes is so effective because it acknowledges that the organizers were able to take greater risks because they didn’t have to consider as many factors as racialized women— women who often needed the collective’s help the most.

This is a history that is by no means complete but it does feel concrete. By bringing all the facets of this story into the present, Lessin and Pildes open up the possibility for further conversation. I felt that rebellious spirit long after I watched the film. Let’s hope The Janes forges a path toward a better future.

The Janes screened as part of Sundance 2022. Head here for more coverage of the festival.



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