By Katie Chambers
In director Tracy Droz Tragos feature documentary Plan C, a hidden grassroots organization doggedly fights to expand access to abortion pills across the United States, keeping hope alive during a global pandemic and the fall of Roe v. Wade. The film follows Francine Coeytaux, who spent decades working in public health and focusing on new reproductive technologies, including the development of emergency contraception. With abortion restrictions and bans going into effect, Coeytaux and her team of providers established Plan C — a grassroots organization dedicated to expanding access to medication abortion.
NYWIFT member Jess Jacobs, the film’s executive producer, has a career-long history of activism – including work with the Plan C organization before the movie was even made! Jacobs is an award-winning actor, a writer, producer and activist, whose projects have screened at Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Seattle (SIFF), Bentonville and beyond. Her work can be found on Hulu, Paramount+, Starz and others, and featured in publications ranging from Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, and Forbes. Jacobs toured the country with Choices, a short form film project she created and stars in, and her feature film screenwriting debut is in post-production. She was co-founder of Invisible Pictures, where she produced Bull (Sony Worldwide), Long Weekend (Sony Classics), and Soul City (Topic) for the company. She was named one of Real Leaders Magazine’s 100 Visionary Leaders, received the Future is Female Award from ICFP and is the chair of the board of non-profit Rooftop Films.
Jacobs spoke to us about Plan C’s Sundance premiere, her passion for reproductive justice, and the power of community.
Congratulations on your Sundance premiere! What does inclusion in Sundance mean to you?
Thank you so much! The invitation to Sundance was such a moment of celebration for our team, because this film really has been the little engine that could. It’s a small, passionate group of filmmakers telling the story of a small, passionate group of abortion providers and activists who are fighting for the rights of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people across this country.
As a filmmaker, and a member of this producing team, it is recognition of the power of our subjects’ stories and of Tracy’s masterful direction, as well as the genius contributions of ever member of the film team, to get to share this story with engaged audiences at the festival — and the activist in me is still gobsmacked to have had a mainstream platform like Sundance for the abortion pills and for the self-managed abortion movement, in a time where access is being threatened or revoked with consistency. It was and is an incredible opportunity.
What inspired you to come on board to executive produce Plan C?
It’s an interesting time for this film to premiere, given the up-to-the-moment updates happening now regarding the overturning and Roe v. Wade and its aftermath. The timing couldn’t be more pointed – with the pandemic and the rise of telemedicine, as well as the fall of Roe. But even just in the last week of January, a court in Dallas is trying to overturn the FDA’s approval of mifepristone – one of the pills used to safely terminate a pregnancy – which has been in place since 2000. So the fight is ongoing.
I actually came to the film through my work with Plan C Pills, the organization! In 2017, I collaborated with Francine Coeytaux and Amy Merrill on their “Five Little Pills” campaign, bringing awareness to the medication abortion option through a short PSA distributed across social media. Having had a medication abortion myself, sharing information about this option and normalizing the experience is a huge priority of mine. When I met Tracy and learned she had been filming for, I think, a year at that point, maybe a bit more… it was a very natural fit. I had been looking for more ways to align my activism and advocacy with my professional work.
From a content perspective, it can be tempting to tell the stories of the anti-abortion movement, to “better understand them” but the reality is that 85% of Americans believe that abortion access should be legal and any decision should be made between a pregnant person and their doctor, so it’s giving greater weight to a very small minority to tell those stories. Plan C centers instead on the folks at the tip of the spear, doing the day-to-day powerful work of increasing access, and they do so with incredible humanity, joy and commitment which leaves all of us feeling more hopeful than afraid.
What are some of the challenges of working on a project where so many identities need to be protected? There is a big focus on the film of the constant threats of harassment, danger, and violence against these women and their families.
It’s true: all of the providers in this film put their lives on the line to do the work that they do – some very literally – and some of the patients and abortion storytellers face very real risk as well. There are serious consequences for this kind of civil disobedience, this ethical rebellion. It’s heroic, and inspiring… and requires serious attention.
Throughout filming, Tracy ensured that every provider and interviewee was fully cognizant of the potential impact of a documentary, and she considered their safety in her filmic approach; hands became a big visual theme in the film, as a way to convey emotion (think fidgeting digits, or crumpled fists, or relaxed fingers) as well as to maintain privacy for those who didn’t want to be identifiable. Everyone who ended up on camera was shown their segment, and either shared concerns, which were addressed, or consented as is.
Budgetarily, we had to increase our allotment for VFX, as we went back to double and triple blur faces and images for the final cut to guarantee protection.
In addition to working as an executive producer on the film, I also took on the role of impact producer, and much of my work leading up to Sundance was interfacing with film subjects and stakeholders, walking the line between maintaining a powerful story and what we consistently called a “Do No Harm” approach to the movement.
There were some challenging moments, which is a natural part of documentary filmmaking I think, but we’ve ended up with a film of which everyone involved is genuinely and very proud.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
We asked ourselves this question often during the editing process and especially leading up to the Sundance premiere.
The biggest takeaway, we hope, is that knowledge is power. This film is as much about spreading information about these pills and self-managed abortion as it is telling the linear story of this fight over the last four years.
We hope that by bringing Francine and all of these providers’ stories to the forefront, alongside the absurd and irrational restrictions on these medications, that the immense power of this movement is evident and a brighter future is illuminated. It’s humbling to think that we can be a part of letting something out of Pandora’s box which cannot be put back in. Once the information is out there, there’s no un-knowing it. Go to www.plancpills.org to learn for yourself!
The main thrust of your work centers on female and femme experiences with equity and justice. Being engrossed in this space – especially with something as fraught, deeply personal, and constantly under threat such as reproductive healthcare – can be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. How do you as a creative practice self-care while continuing to produce quality work?
I love this question. It honors the humanity behind the work, which is essential and so often undervalued.
I am a huge advocate for acupuncture, and for therapy. I lean pretty heavily on my community for love while I’m working: whether it’s a hug from my partner, a phone chat with my family at the end of a long day, a night on a dance floor with a friend to let loose, a video call with other beloved colleagues, a walk with my dogs… it’s a matter of grounding myself in the safety of my community that makes vulnerable work possible. Plus, really good wine and pedicures. I love a good foot massage.
I know you were on the ground (or I should say, on the mountain) in Park City for your film. How was your festival experience this year? Any favorite moments? It’s exciting to see some major industry events return to some version of “normal.”
It’s SO exciting! God, it was such a joy to be back in person. Not that it wasn’t fun to cozy up on the couch in pajamas and watch movies for a week straight over the last two years, but… Running into industry friends and colleagues on Main Street, popping in the nearest place for a quick tea together before both heading off to the next thing, it’s what film festivals are for.
So, the festival experience was great – crowded, as I think everyone felt the excitement of being back, so Park City was packed – but in such a delicious way. I was thrilled to be asked by the ACLU to participate in their panel on “Cinema for Change,” alongside colleagues from Picture Motion and Hillman Grad. That conversation was so robust and fun, absolutely a highlight. And [NYWIFT Advisory Board Member] Caren Spruch and Planned Parenthood always throw such a fun event, and I particularly loved hearing from Karrie Galloway, the CEO of Planned Parenthood Utah, about how fierce the local fight is. It, of course, couldn’t have felt more topical for all of the Plan C team in the room. We are all in this together.
What kinds of projects excite you?
I am, both as a filmmaker and a producer, the most excited by independent film. It’s where barriers get broken, where there’s the most flexibility with the form, where we as artists have the most agency over our own stories and creativity. Don’t get me wrong. Television is amazing; I love a big box office hit; but beautiful, nuanced, independent cinema is some of the most incredible, powerful art there is. Telling a full story, building a complete world and characters, capturing each other’s hearts in two hours?! It’s sorcery. And especially when the stories center the feminine experience – whether in friendship, romance, reproduction, leadership – and creatively sharpen the lens to allow for the female gaze… I’m in.
Interview with Plan C director Tracy Droz Tragos (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)
What is your advice for women filmmakers hoping to use their art to enact social change?
My advice is two-fold: firstly, you are the master of your own story. You know best how to tell it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The impact of truthful and authentic self-expression is unparalleled, and we don’t have enough of it. Our experiences as women deserve to be told from our perspectives.
Secondly: you don’t have to know everything. Ask for help. Ask for support. We have been told by patriarchal systems that ignorance is weakness but that’s flat-out crap. Ignorance can be creativity – your curiosity about something which everyone else takes for granted might allow us to question the status quo. Ignorance can be relationship-building – when you ask for help, you are making yourself vulnerable and that builds trust. I know those pieces of advice are conflicting, but… we contain multitudes. Which is feminist AF.
What is next for you?
With Plan C, we are headed to SXSW! It’s both thrilling and intimidating to bring the film to Texas, where much of the film was shot and from where a lot of legal challenges are coming… Keep an eye out for a few activations we’re planning there. We have festivals lined up after Austin, and those announcements should be coming shortly.
For me, my feature screenwriting debut is in post-production which is part love story, part thriller, navigating immigration and asylum issues, a film on which I partnered with Baghdad-born director Oday Rasheed. And I’m in development for a spinoff of my last short film Choices (which can be found via our distributor, Omeleto) and I have recently announced a TV project based on the novel The Hush, both of which navigate unintended pregnancy in one way or another. It’s clearly a creative fascination of mine.
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