Vessel (2014), directed by Diana Whitten, follows Dutch physician and former Greenpeace ship’s doctor Rebecca Gomperts and her organization Women on Waves as they sail from country to country with the hope of providing access to and information about safe medical abortions for women. The film unfolds in chronological order with after-the-fact interviews from Women on Waves volunteers interspersed throughout. The camera centers on Gomperts for the duration of the film but also captures conversations amongst the other volunteers. Whitten includes real-time interviews with the volunteers, as well as supplementary footage filmed by other documentarians and news outlets which gives an account of how citizens on land saw the ship. Whitten is careful to protect the identities of the women who board the ship to get an abortion, as the camera only ever shows their hands or blurs their faces.
The film, which premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival in 2014, consists of almost a decade’s worth of footage and begins with Women on Waves’ first voyage to Ireland. Gomperts’ original plan involved travelling to countries like Ireland where abortion is illegal, helping pregnant women to board the ship, and administering medical (pill-based) abortions in medical in international waters where they would be legally allowed to perform abortions under Dutch jurisdiction. Their approach evolves, however, as they are met with opposition from aggressive anti-abortion activists and national governments. Gomperts eventually decides to change their strategy, knowing that if they cannot get women to board the ship then they will have to help women gain access to the necessary pills on land. She begins by going on a talk show in Portugal and on live television she gives instructions for women to buy and use Misoprostol, a drug which induces abortion about eighty percent of the time. Emily Bazelon describes the shift in Gomperts’ technique in a companion piece written in the New York Times, “The Dawn of the Post-Clinic Abortion”:
As word of Gomperts’ TV appearance spread, activists in other countries saw it as a breakthrough. Gomperts had communicated directly to women what was still, in many places, a well-kept secret: There were pills on the market with the power to end a pregnancy. Emails from women all over the world poured into Women on Waves, asking about the medication and how to get it. Gomperts wanted to help women “give themselves permission” to take the pills, as she puts it, with as little involvement by the government, or the medical profession, as possible. She realized that there was an easier way to do this than showing up in a port. She didn’t need a ship. She just needed the Internet. (Bazelon)
The film captures Women on Waves’ transition to an internet base, Women on Web, as they try to increase their global reach. Text of women’s emails overlays footage of the volunteers responding while still aboard the ship. Women from on Ireland, Philippines, and the U.S. military email Women on Web desperate for information about abortion, and the volunteers reply with explanations of how to access and use Misoprostol. Women can also fill out a consultation on the website and the organization package sends a package with the pills by mail.
There are also several animations throughout the film that contain statistics and information about abortions. One animation shows a map of the world with descriptions about international abortion laws. Accompanying the text are white figures representing women from around the world; they fall and turn black under a statistic claiming that every ten minutes a woman dies due to unsafe abortion is on-screen. Another animation includes directions for how to use Misoprostol. This segment is highly informative, explaining the side effects of the pills, when it becomes necessary to see a doctor, what to say to a doctor, and even recommends having a friend close by or reaching out to Women on Web for emotional support.
Vessel is as much an instructive film as it is an arresting close-up look at the evolution of Gomperts’ grassroots organization. The film does an excellent job of capturing the challenges that confront both Women on Waves and women across the world in regards to choosing to terminate a pregnancy. Through depictions of Gomperts’ and Women on Waves’ creative solutions, Vessel also captures the resilience of women and their collective power that transcends racial, cultural, class, and religious divides.