"On the Divide" profiles three people at a Texas abortion clinic and asks: "What does choice mean?"

Filmmakers spoke to Salon about shooting their documentary at the only abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley

Published June 13, 2021 8:00PM (EDT)

On the Divide (Tribeca Film Festival)
On the Divide (Tribeca Film Festival)

"On the Divide," which is having its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, profiles three people whose lives intersect at the Whole Woman's Health abortion clinic, the only abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley. Filmmakers Maya Cueva and Leah Galant show all sides of this hot-button issue in McAllen, Texas, as they follow Mercedes, a pro-life protester; Rey, a security guard at the clinic; and Denisse a volunteer escort and activist. 

Mercedes is a young woman who was involved in gang life. She was ready to abort her baby but changed her mind. She became a "prayer warrior," and loyal to Yolanda, a devout Christian woman who owns a pregnancy crisis center three doors down from the abortion clinic. Mercedes explains that folks don't understand her, but as "On the Divide" reveals her story, it shows how complex her situation is. Rey is also religious, but he is empathetic to the women who require the abortion clinic's services. He braces himself for Yolanda who protests on a regular basis. In contrast, Denisse is working to raise awareness about reproductive rights and pursue a degree in midwifery. She is seen protesting against Ted Cruz in a "Handmaid's Tale" outfit, no less. (The filmmakers started working on the film in 2014 with principal photography ending in 2019).

Cueva and Galant's observational documentary emphasizes health (both mental and physical), dignity, and justice. They spoke with Salon about their fine film.

What prompted you to tackle this topic, and profile the three people you did? Mercedes vs. Yolanda; and Rey are particularly interesting choices.

Maya Cueva: Leah and I met at Ithaca College and were randomly assigned to work in a group together during our senior thesis documentary class. We had to make a short film. We came across an article following a travelling abortion doctor. We never heard of that before or knew that kind of job existed. We connected with a doctor who travels from New Mexico to Texas, and made a short film called "The Provider." When we made our way to Texas, we saw clinics were closing and how dire access was there, and during the production of the short that we made our way to the border and saw there was only one abortion clinic there. We thought this could be its own film. After graduating, we made it back to the border. 

We engaged with the community and met Rey when we went to the clinic the first time. He was outside being a security guard, and we ended up talking to him and learned his story of being kicked out of the church and how he grapples with his safety all the time. The reality is that there are a lot of threats to safety that these organizers have to deal with. We never thought about how a 67-year-old Latino man had a stake in this issue. That's what made us focus on the stories we did — who are the human faces behind this issue and who are the people that you wouldn't think would have a stake in this issue? I met Mercedes a year later when I was working on a story for NPR and connected with her on that and asked if she wanted to be a part of the film and she agreed. Denisse we met during the Ted Cruz protest. We were struck by her. She joined this movement around reproductive rights and felt like she had a purpose. We saw how different they were but how much they complimented each other. 

I like that you made an evenhanded film, giving both sides a chance to tell their story. Can you discuss that decision/approach?

Leah Galant: Maya and I like to say is that our viewpoints and our participants' viewpoints that while pro-choice and pro-life have political ramifications that are very real, we wanted to allow our participants to tell their own story and carve out their own box and in their viewpoints that don't fit neatly in the polarizing debate. Ultimately being able to let people live their lives in real time and what choice means when we are not afforded many options, and that's what our characters come to decide: What does choice mean? It's important for our participants to speak on their viewpoints from their own perspective and evade any single definition of who they are. Most of us in the world have complicated and nuanced views, and we have to honor that while also understanding what lack of health care means for anyone whatever side of the aisle you are on. We also wanted to reach outside of echo chambers and especially with everything feeling so polarized, we hope our film is a conversation starter and not an ender. We want to show what our participants go through. 

I appreciate that while you have a few scenes in the Whole Woman's Health clinic, we never see any of the cases; but you shoot outside Yolanda's pregnancy center, and we get to eavesdrop on one of the patient's visits. Can you explain your strategy in your storytelling?

Cueva: We did start off by going inside the clinic, but we ended up feeling the stories we followed are the ones you don't hear — these are the people on the front lines and who deal with the repercussions of limited access when there is no choice available. There's a scene where someone in the film goes to get birth control and in that moment, they realize if abortion is defunded, what happens to these services? We didn't tell them to say that, they came to that realization on their own. It was important to share that. This was someone who had to go through this to see how important choice is. It feels like both sides are yelling at each other, and there are films about abortion that talk about the legislation and the laws, but I can't connect with anyone who might be going through the issue of not having access and we wanted to move away from the talking head experts and show the humanity of it. 

What I like about your film is that it shows how folks can be influenced into a way of thinking. What observation do you have about how people have their thinking swayed?

Galant: We made a choice to make this a verité character-driven film, and we didn't want it to be didactic, so whatever conclusions the audience makes is a reaction to our storytelling approach. We don't want to hit anyone over the head with specific information. The stories speak for themselves. What you see is what happens. We don't tell our characters to say anything. I hope they feel complicated and nuanced because while they all come from different backgrounds and they intersect at this abortion clinic and you see parallels to their stories and that's a good way to frame the issues that are coming up in the film. You can see the similarities between the participants and see where they are overlapping and intersecting, and they do have more in common than they think. There are aspects of the film — what happens at the clinic has been revealed to us for the first the time. The type of threats the clinic faces. We approached this with journalism ethics. These are stories we had never seen before, which is why we filmed specific interactions and events. Folks should be aware and make an informed decision on what they are seeing.

There is a discussion of being "neither here nor there" and you show aspects of the Latino culture in McAllen, Texas, such as a folk medicine ritual. Can you talk about that, and how the film's subjects balance having one foot in two worlds? 

Cueva: We really wanted to highlight that because that is so much a part of their lives — living in this border region, and having influences like Día de los Muertos, and how the church doesn't want to emphasize their similarities but that was such an important part of what Denisse was raised on. It was important to talk about that duality, what is it to be from neither here nor there? Although there were so many things going on — McAllen is home to the largest detention center in Texas. We saw families being separated and troops coming in during the Trump administration. But we felt the story was really about abortion access and those elements of living on the border and these intersecting issues were a backdrop for our characters already. The Día de los Muertos scene was so important. I'm Latina, and we wanted to highlight as much of this borderland culture as possible but not in a way that feels voyeuristic. It wasn't to glorify a different culture. We're not going to say, "Look at this amazing culture." Denisse explains a little of Día de los Muertos culture, but we didn't want to make it palatable to white people. We wanted to show it as it is a part of her life. 

There are several themes that stem out of this topic from religion and gang culture, to sexual assault, violent assault, as well as suicidal depression, financial issues, and abusive relationships. I think your film shows many of the deeper struggles that women must deal with on top of having to make decisions about birth control. What are your thoughts on that?

Galant: Any issues around the characters were organic to the fabric of their lives. There can be an issue with documentary filmmakers trying to create narratives that don't exist or create exploitative films. Our ethos going into this project is that when we come into a community, especially as a white person or someone not from the community, the first question that we like to ask is: What stories are not being told and what is being left out of these conversations? A lot of the media coming out of McAllen is exploitative and reductive, and that creates a lot of distress for community members in allowing media in their spaces for very good reasons, so we very consciously wanted to avoid and actually do the opposite of other media has done in that region. In that sense, we let the participants guide the narrative, and the issues that were coming up organically. Our film helps connects the dots. The characters face parallel issues that Rey, Mercedes and Denisse all face. It provides ways to highlight their humanity even if they are coming from different sides of the debate.  

Your film ends with a title card that addresses Rosie's Law, which is a bill to restore health insurance coverage for abortion. It is a response to the Hyde amendment, which revoked government funding coverage for abortion and prompted Rosaura Jimenez from getting a safe, legal, and accessible abortion she died as a result of getting an illegal abortion. Do you think this bill will be passed?

Cueva: It's hard to say if it will be passed or not. There's a lot of mobilizing and organizing around It. Rosie's Law is to stop the Hyde amendment, which prevents government funding to be accessible for abortion care. This is why in Texas and a lot of other places in the South have abortion funds set up, because people can't afford to get an abortion. Whereas in California, abortion is covered under Medi-Cal, you can get it for free. It's being introduced now. It's hard to say if it will pass because there are a number of other restrictive laws that are being put into place to challenge Roe v. Wade and other bills like the Heartbeat bill in Texas, which would prevent people from getting an abortion after six weeks, which is when many people find out they are pregnant. Just another way to prevent people from getting access to abortions. This film is coming out at a time when it is challenging for Reproductive rights, so we wanted to raise awareness of Rosie's Law. She is such an important figure in the Rio Grande valley. The organizers we met taught us about her because she passed away in a hospital that used to be across from the abortion clinic. She's a reminder why they continue to fight. 

Do you think "On the Divide" will change people's way of thinking?

Galant: We think about this a lot. I hope that anyone who has a nuanced perspective on this issue, however you identify, will come away with more information and perspectives than you came in with and that will inform any organizing or activist work that need to be done. We don't want to be didactic. The films we enjoy the most are ones where we are not being preached to. So, hopefully, people will be able to listen to one another better and what the needs are to the community, which they are very clearly expressing.

Cueva: I think an important point for us as the filmmakers is that we've always had Roe v. Wade intact and don't know what it is like not to have access to abortion, so we want to show what is the reality like for people who have to deal with this firsthand. If Roe v. Wade is challenged and taken away, this community has to deal with the consequences. That's what we want people to understand. It is not a black and white issue. Talking about this is a personal choice, and everyone can identify with that. What does it mean to forget about this debate and look at letting folks make the decision they want to make?

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Abortion Interview Leah Galant Maya Cueva Movies On The Divide Tribeca Film Festival