By Katie Chambers
Cynthia Lowen’s latest documentary Battleground offers an eye-opening window into the anti-choice movement, featuring three women from varying walks of life who have dedicated themselves to rendering abortion illegal. Per the Tribeca website: “Told with restraint and balance, director Cynthia Lowen seeks to clarify rather than condemn, and presents a new point of entry for this challenging topic.” While the film itself clearly aligns with progressive pro-choice advocates (who also appear throughout) it offers a fascinating perspective on the sheer systemic power of the anti-abortion movement and the perilous future, felt painfully today, of Roe v. Wade.
Battleground was Executive Produced by NYWIFT member Ruth Ann Harnisch and co-produced by member Steffie van Rhee, who sat down with us to discuss the premiere and how this film – from this particular perspective – came to fruition.
Hailing from the Netherlands, Steffie van Rhee is a multimedia journalist turned documentary filmmaker and producer. Located in New York, she tries to combine her background in journalism with her love for documentary storytelling, finding the roots for stories in extensive research. She believes that sharing people’s personal stories can catalyze (social) change and create a deeper understanding of different realities and experiences. Dedicated to amplifying female narratives and bringing projects into the world that highlight other underrepresented perspectives, she is often found working on projects focusing on women’s issues, or that are driven by diverse creative teams.
Her directing credits include the short documentary A Life Before This (2016), about a mother who lost her son to police brutality, and she has contributed to PBS’s American Portrait Project.
She is the co-producer of Netflix original six-part documentary series Race: Bubba Wallace, about NASCAR’s only Black driver, and the associate producer of the feature documentary Netizens, about three women fighting back against online harassment. In 2019, under the banner of her own production company Before Films, she produced her first-ever fiction project, the short online dating thriller Swipe. As a freelance researcher and (field) producer she has worked with production companies such as Boardwalk Pictures, C41 Media, Film45, Bureau NY and Atlantic Pictures.
Congratulations on your Tribeca Festival premiere! What does inclusion in Tribeca mean to you?
Thank you! We were so thrilled to have our world premiere at Tribeca. Our core team is based in New York, so Tribeca feels a bit like a hometown celebration. After working on the project for years with only a very small group of people being involved, it was great to be able to share it with audiences. Especially at a time when all eyes are on the Supreme Court and people are keenly aware that reproductive rights are under attack.
Your background is in journalism. What brought you to documentary filmmaking?
The daily grind of broadcasting news wasn’t for me, it felt both lacking in depth and frustrating to have to do work that seemed more driven by clicks and ads than by the people or issues.
I then got the opportunity to do research for other filmmakers back home in the Netherlands and help them come up with ideas, storylines and find documentary participants and that opened up a whole new world for me. Suddenly I got to research for weeks, if not months, and even start from scratch again if something didn’t end up working. I like the process of being open, asking questions and exploring ideas to see where that takes you, rather than trying to find people to provide quick soundbites that can confirm what you already set out to tell.
My background in journalism still serves me well though. We did a lot of research for Battleground and even fact checking towards the end of production is something I feel more comfortable with because of the skills I gained earlier in my career.
How did you get involved with Battleground?
I had the pleasure of being the associate producer on Netizens, Cynthia Lowen’s previous documentary. When Cynthia asked me to join the team for Battleground, I did not hesitate, especially because it deals with subject matter I strongly care about. It’s been great getting to work with both Cynthia and producer Rebecca Stern (who also worked on Netizens) on two back-to-back projects.
Why did you want to tell this story – and from this particular perspective? It’s clear from the creative choices (ominous music, text on screen with pro-choice support information) that the creative team does not necessarily agree with most of the anti-choice subjects in the film. Why did you feel it was important to give them a voice? It’s also unusual to see a diverse mix of anti-choice advocates, some are otherwise quite liberal or self-describe as not only “not religious” but as atheist.
Director Cynthia Lowen started filming after the near-total abortion ban Alabama passed in the summer of 2019. She first filmed with pro-choice advocates who had had abortions themselves, and those voices still play a very important role in Battleground.
But as she returned, she started wondering how this ban (at [that] time very extreme, we’ve seen worse since) came to be, and looking into those advocating for anti-abortion legislation. What became clear quickly was that there was a solid group of organizations and individuals pushing for these bills, and that their work was decades in the making and now having a strong momentum. Curiosity then took over and we just started asking questions about who they are, what motivates them and why their strategies are so effective.
And as you point out, it’s unusual to see this diverse mix of anti-choice advocates, which is something that surprised us all while making it, but is more interesting to me than telling the story you already know – and that has already been told well many times by other wonderful filmmakers. So far people have called the film eye-opening, and I’m a big believer that knowing things is always better than being in the dark.
What was your favorite moment making Battleground? And biggest challenge?
Everyone enjoys different parts of the process, but I personally love going out in the field and working with Cynthia and our crew. Whether it’s trying to secure a last-minute interview when already on location or witnessing a scene you know will play beautifully in the film, it’s all part of the fun for me. Our core creatives are all women, and it was great to get to work with cinematographers Barbie Leung and Gabriella Garcia-Pardo.
Battleground was largely filmed over 2020, so you can imagine the challenges that came with trying to keep production going at the height of covid. But I’m happy to say we did it with the help of amazing local crews and we all stayed healthy in the process. And of course funding is always tough, especially on this one, but Cynthia and Rebecca never wavered in their conviction that this film was worth making and found some strong supporters and executive producers who felt the same.
Are the subjects happy with how the documentary turned out?
They are. The women at the center of the film have all seen it and feel that it’s a fair portrayal of them and appreciate the integrity and honesty Cynthia and the filmmaking team have maintained throughout the process and that is reflected in the final film.
Shifting gears – I see you are the founder of Girl Crew Collective. Tell us about it!
Yes, I love my girlcrew! The four of us met while studying Documentary Media Studies at The New School and crewing on each other’s film. What initially started as a joke while in school (girlcrew’ing each other’s shoots), has turned into a wonderful creative support system for us, but also other female-identifying creatives. For instance, during the pandemic we hosted live talks with other creatives – from writers/showrunners to actors and documentarians – and we are currently thinking through how to be a little more active again, both in supporting others to create new work and amplifying it once it’s done.
What is next for you?
One of the other girlcrew members, Juul Op den Kamp, and I are teaming up again to work on a new project. Juul is a wonderful director, who mixes a touch of magic realism with some very heavy hitting topics, and I’m excited to work on another documentary tackling women’s issues with her.
Additionally, a documentary series I was the supervising producer on should land on Showtime this fall, so I’m looking forward to some more new work finding its way out in the world.
And of course, hoping that Battleground will do well, and anytime I get the chance to continue working with Cynthia or Rebecca, I’m there!
Connect with Steffie van Rhee and learn more about her work on her website: www.steffievanrhee.com
Learn more about the NYWIFT members at the 2022 Tribeca Festival here.
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NYWIFT member Ilja Willems heads to the 2023 DOC NYC Festival with not one but two exciting new short films. Friendly Fridges shows how the new heart of the community is popping up in every neighborhood—in the shape of refrigerators. And When the grass must go follows a landscaper from Nevada who is removing grass lawns under a first-of-a-kind state law that will save water during an ongoing drought. Willems spoke to us about how these two disparate films align with her creative sensibilities, the joy of screening in NYC, and more!READ MORE