ShortList 2020: 'Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa' Filmmakers on Urgent Need to Make the Short (Video)

Documentary follows counselors working for a Philadelphia abortion helpline who try to help women seeking to end a pregnancy but can’t afford to

After the 2016 election, filmmakers Janet Goldwater, Barbara Attie and Mike Attie said they felt a sense or urgency to make “Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa,” a short documentary about counselors working for a Philadelphia abortion hotline who try to help women seeking to end a pregnancy but can’t afford it.

“‘Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa’ was conceived with a sense of urgency in the aftermath of the 2016 election,” Goldwater said of the film, a finalist for TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival. “Barbara and I surveyed the bleak political scenario for an untold “story” that would shed a light on the increased suffering we feared this presidency would bring. We settled on the growing threats to reproductive rights, a topic we have explored in a number of feature documentaries in the past 25 years.”

Indeed, Barbara Attie and Goldwater first collaborated on “Motherless: A Legacy of Loss From Illegal Abortion,” about children orphaned when their mothers died after back-alley abortions before Roe v. Wade, and have worked together since 1990.

Goldwater already had an established connection with the abortion helpline in Philadelphia where she “more than once heard a woman talk about choosing between food for the children she already had and paying for an abortion.” So she pulled in Barbara Attie, who was “immediately struck by the power of the callers’ stories.”

She enlisted her son, Mike, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and the trio started working on the film in 2017 with no funding. The film has no voiceovers — instead, the actual calls speak for themselves.

“In this case, we decided that the most direct way to highlight the issue of abortion access was to elevate the voices of individuals who have been intentionally cut off from access by a federal policy–the Hyde Amendment,” Barbara Attie explained. “So in the film, all you hear are the callers, seeking to control their fertility and family size, and the counselors–college students grappling with their capacity to help women in need… We see this film as part of a much larger discussion about economic injustice and the many ways in which it undermines the lives of so many in our communities.”

Goldwater says that getting permission  to record these calls wasn’t too much of a difficulty, as many — not all — callers knew they could potentially help others. “Working with an attorney, we crafted a permission statement that counselors read to the callers assuring them that their decision whether to allow us to record their calls would not impact the outcome of their financial request.  They were also assured that their identity would be confidential,” Goldwater said. However, not all counselors were completely relaxed about being filmed at work, Mike Attie said, so it took some time to establish that comfort. That’s partially why the film took two years to make.

Plus, all three filmmakers live in Philadelphia so they had already established trust in the reproductive rights community. Instead, the team faced its biggest difficulty in regards to shooting location.

“I think the biggest hurdle we faced was the visual limitation of filming in a tiny, windowless office,” Mike Attie said. “We toyed with creating scenes outside the office but in the end, felt that it only diminished the power of the stories. The film only leaves the tense confines of the helpline office to show archival footage of Congressman Henry Hyde, as he gleefully introduces the legislation cutting off access to abortion for poor women.”

“Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa” was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and won the Grand Jury Prize for Short Documentary at the 2020 AFI Docs Festival.

Watch the short above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at Shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote from Aug. 6-19.

The Scene at ShortList 2019: TheWrap's 8th Annual Short Film Festival (Photos)

  • In the top row, ShortList 2019 filmmakers, from left to right: “Hula Girl” directors Amy Hill and Chris Reiss, “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey, “Green” director Suzanne Andrews Correa, “Sister” director Siqi Song, “How Does It Start” director Amber Sealey and “Enforcement Hours” director Paloma Martinez.

    In the lower row, TheWrap CEO Sharon Waxman, ShortList host Harvey Guillen, “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas,  “No Sanctuary” producer Moriah Hall, “Departing Gestures” co-directors Brian Bolster and Jonathan Napolitano and TheWrap writer Steve Pond.

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  • ShortList filmmakers attended the ShortList opening night dinner, presented by Amazon Alexa, on Wednesday, August 21 at Eveleigh West Hollywood.

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  • TheWrap awards editor Steve Pond, “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas and TheWrap head of operations Claude Memmi at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • Guests enjoyed an intimate evening of dinner and conversation at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • We’re Magnetic global director of consumer research and insights Rachel Krautkremer, “How Does it Start” director Amber Sealey, Amazon head of entertainment & culture, XCM Andrew Saunders and Endeavor (WME-IMG) senior global marketing manager Alexandra Stabler at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • “Enforcement Hours” director Paloma Martinez, “Green” director Suzanne Andrews Correa and “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas speaks at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • TheWrap CEO Sharon Waxman speaks with ShortList filmmakers and jurors at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • “What We Do in the Shadows” star and ShortList host Harvey Guillen poses with TheWrap CEO Sharon Waxman.

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  • “Departing Gesture” producers Thomas Harrington, Brian Bolster, Jonathan Napolitano and Kayleigh Napolitano.

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  • ShortList jurors Landon Zakheim, Todd Berger, Wendy Guerrero, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Steve Pond, Gena Konstantinakos, Orlando von Einsiedel, Sharon Waxman and Tristen Tuckfield.

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  • Host Harvey Guillen and jury member and actress Marsha Stephanie Blake.

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  • “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey, “How Does it Start” director Amber Sealey and “Departing Gesture” co-director Brian Bolster.

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  • “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” composer Britta Phillips, director A.M. Lukas, and cinematographer Meena Singh.

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  • “Sister” director Siqi Song.

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  • “What We Do in the Shadows” star Harvey Guillen, while hosting at the ShortList ceremony.

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  • The ShortList 2019 jury panel.

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  • Jurors Tristen Tuckfield, Gena Konstantinakos and Todd Berger.

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  • Director & co-founder of Grain Media Orlando von Einsiedel speaks during the jury panel.

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  • Jurors Wendy Guerrero, executive vice president of 30West Tristen Tuckfield, and Gena Konstantinakos.

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  • Gena Konstantinakos, vice president of Development & Video Programing of Topic.

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  • Jurors Gena Konstantinakos, Marsha Stephanie Blake, and Wendy Guerrero.

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  • Guests mingle with food and drinks at the W Hotel Hollywood.

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  • ShortList film curator Landon Zakheim.

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  • Guests chat with wine in hand at the W Hotel Hollywood.

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  • Steve Pond introduces ShortList finalists during the filmmakers panel

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  • “Sister” director Siqi Sing, “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey, and “How Does It Start” director Amber Sealey

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  • (L-R), “Departing Gesture” co-directors Jonathan Napolitano and Brian Bolster, Siqi Song

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  • “Green” director Suzanne Andrews Correa

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  • “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas

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  • Senior Vice President Original Programming of Starz Karen Bailey announces the finalists for Telling Our Stories, a new film competition by Starz and WrapWomen

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  • “No Sanctuary” takes the student prize, accepted by producer Moriah Hall

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  • “Departing Gesture” takes the audience prize, accepted by the co-directors Jonathan Napolitano and Brian Bolster

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  • “Enforcement Hours” takes the industry prize, accepted by director Paloma Martinez

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  • Guests mingle at the W Hotel Hollywood

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  • Guests pose for pictures after the awards ceremony

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  • (L-R) Senior Vice President Original Programming of Starz Karen Bailey, “No Sanctuary” producer Moriah Hall and Sharon Waxman

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  • Sharon Waxman and “Enforcement Hours” director Paloma Martinez

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  • “Departing Gesture” directors Brian Bolster and Jonathan Napolitano

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Finalists and jurors come together to celebrate this year’s finalists

In the top row, ShortList 2019 filmmakers, from left to right: “Hula Girl” directors Amy Hill and Chris Reiss, “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey, “Green” director Suzanne Andrews Correa, “Sister” director Siqi Song, “How Does It Start” director Amber Sealey and “Enforcement Hours” director Paloma Martinez.

In the lower row, TheWrap CEO Sharon Waxman, ShortList host Harvey Guillen, “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas,  “No Sanctuary” producer Moriah Hall, “Departing Gestures” co-directors Brian Bolster and Jonathan Napolitano and TheWrap writer Steve Pond.

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