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“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”: New Film Follows Teenager’s Perilous Journey to Access Abortion

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As multiple states have moved to further restrict access to abortions during the pandemic, a powerful new dramatic film follows a 17-year-old girl as she travels from her small town in Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion without having to notify her parents. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” director and writer Eliza Hittman joins us to discuss the making of the film, which is being distributed online while cinemas remain closed in most states due to the pandemic.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As multiple states try to further restrict access to abortion during the pandemic, we’re turning now to a powerful new dramatic film that follows a 17-year-old girl as she travels from her small town in Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion without having to notify her parents. Autumn Callahan is played by Sidney Flanigan in an incredible debut performance. This is the trailer for Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

SKYLAR: [played by Talia Ryder] I didn’t see you at school today.

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: [played by Sidney Flanigan] I went to the doctor.

SKYLAR: What’s wrong?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Girl problems.

SKYLAR: Don’t you ever just wish you were a dude?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: All the time.

SHAMOKIN TECHNICIAN: [played by Amy Tribbey] This is the most magical sound you will ever hear.

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: I’m just not ready to be a mom.

SKYLAR: Where else could you go?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Nowhere in Pennsylvania.

SKYLAR: I think you should try another place.

JASPER: [played by Théodore Pellerin] You going to New York? What are you doing there?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Seeing family and stuff.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: [played by Kelly Chapman] Who came with you today?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: My cousin.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: Do you have a place to stay tonight? I know you came from far away.

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: I’ll figure it out.

SECURITY GUARD: This area is closed. You cannot sleep here.

SKYLAR: Where’s the rest of the money?

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: I want to make sure that you’re safe. I know this is hard. I’m going to ask you some questions. They can be really personal. Just answer either never, rarely, sometimes or always.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a new independent film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to rave reviews. And, well, it was supposed to hit theaters in March, just as they were closing in response to the pandemic. Now the film is available online for at-home viewing.

For more, we’re joined by the film’s director and writer, Eliza Hittman.

Eliza, congratulations on this deeply moving, profound film. You could never have predicted what would happen with this pandemic, when your film hit, and yet it is so instructive for what women face today, and young people. Take us on the journey of your film, why you decided to do this, a young woman making this journey to get an abortion because of restrictions on choice in her home community.

ELIZA HITTMAN: Yeah, I first started thinking about this film in 2012, after reading about the death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland. And just to educate myself, I began reading about the history of the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, but also thinking a lot about how restrictive each state can be in the United States.

And I was thinking about the journey that women take from rural areas into urban areas when they can’t get access. And for me, there’s something so powerful and heroic about that journey. And I began to ask myself, “Why haven’t I seen it represented on film before?” So many times films about abortion tend to focus on the moral dilemma, but I thought it could be a really powerful story to explore how hard it is to get a legal abortion in contemporary America.

So I began to do research and a personal investigation of the issue. So I went to different pregnancy care centers in rural Pennsylvania and took pregnancy tests and took counseling sessions, and I consulted with Planned Parenthood in New York. And I just tried to educate myself as best possible about, you know, what the impact of these restrictive barriers look like on a young woman’s life.

AMY GOODMAN: In this scene from Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Skylar asks her cousin Autumn why she wasn’t in school.

SKYLAR: I saw you weren’t at school today.

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: I went to the doctor.

SKYLAR: Are you OK?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Yeah, I’m fine.

SKYLAR: What’s wrong?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Girl problems.

SKYLAR: Bad cramps?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Yeah.

SKYLAR: I get those, too. Pretty much run through a bottle of painkillers like every month.

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Yeah, same.

SKYLAR: Don’t you ever just wish you were a dude?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: All the time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in this scene from Never Rarely Sometimes Always — I’m going to play yet another clip — Autumn goes to what’s called a crisis pregnancy center, which tells her that her pregnancy test is positive.

CRISIS PREGNANCY CENTER DIRECTOR: [played by Mia Dillon] That looks like a positive.

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: If it’s positive, is there any way it could be negative?

CRISIS PREGNANCY CENTER DIRECTOR:No. A positive is always a positive.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Eliza Hittman, talk about this so-called pregnancy crisis center that Autumn finds in her town.

ELIZA HITTMAN: Yeah, you know, I really wanted to put myself in the shoes of the character. And I asked myself, like if I lived in this small town — and I chose a town — what would I have access to if I was a young woman in crisis? And I went into the local pregnancy care center, and, you know, I signed in, and I took a test. And, you know, I really went through the dialogue that the character goes through in the film. And what struck me most from clinic to clinic is that the women who work there, they aren’t licensed medical physicians. They’re just layman volunteers who have a very specific religious agenda, and, you know, the services that they offered aren’t legitimate or medical.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is very clear in the film when they try to scare her with a film. And then, I mean, this film isn’t a documentary. This is a feature dramatic film.

ELIZA HITTMAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And the research you did about the journey that Autumn takes, from Pennsylvania — and again, this is the story of a young woman, a 17-year-old, who is in Pennsylvania, one of 37 states that requires parental involvement for minors seeking abortion. She doesn’t feel comfortable telling her parents, so she makes her way, with her cousin, to New York City. You went on this journey yourself?

ELIZA HITTMAN: I did. I took the only Greyhound bus that left from the town in Pennsylvania. And I really got a chance to sort of absorb the landscapes that would be around the character, and came in through Port Authority and tried to document my own experiences and filter them almost through the eyes of the character, because it was important for me that the film be grounded in authenticity and credibility. And I didn’t want to just sort of write from what I had read online or in books, and wanted to have a firsthand experience with the issues that the film explores.

AMY GOODMAN: Now I wanted to go to a clip that, well, brings in the title of your film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always. You actually filmed this at the Planned Parenthood clinic in New York. Here, a Planned Parenthood clinic staff member in New York City, a woman who plays her, asks Autumn a number of questions about her life.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: All right, so I’m going to ask you some questions. They can be really personal. And all you have to do is answer either never, rarely, sometimes or always. It’s kind of like multiple choice, but it’s not a test.

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: OK.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: OK? In the past year, your partner has refused to wear a condom. Never, rarely, sometimes, always?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Sometimes.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: OK. And your partner messes with your birth control or tries to get you pregnant when you don’t want to be. Never, rarely, sometimes, always?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Never.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: OK. Your partner has threatened or frightened you. Never, rarely, sometimes, always?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Why are you asking me this?

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: I want to make sure that you’re safe. Your partner has threatened or frightened you. Never, rarely, sometimes, always?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Um, rarely.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: OK. Your partner has hit you, slapped you or physically hurt you. Never, rarely, sometimes, always? Has your partner ever hit you, slapped you or physically hurt you? Is someone hurting you?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: I just don’t…

PLANNED PARENTHOOD COUNSELOR: It’s OK. It’s just a couple more questions, all right? Your partner has made you have sex when you didn’t want to. Never, rarely, sometimes, always? It’s OK. I want to make sure you’re safe, and I want to help you if I can. I have just one more question for you, OK, Autumn? Has anyone forced you into a sexual act ever in your lifetime, yes or no?

AUTUMN CALLAHAN: Uh, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Never Rarely Sometimes Always. The director and writer is Eliza Hittman. This is a deeply emotional, powerful moment at the core of your film, Eliza, in the Planned Parenthood clinic in New York. As she’s taken this journey, she has had to wait in New York City with her cousin. Talk more about what the dangers that young women and any woman faces if they can’t be in their own town and do a film in the core of this moment.

ELIZA HITTMAN: For me, you know, this character has been, you know, navigating these very deeply complex, personal, intimate issues alone. Even though her cousin is with her, you know, and she has support of a friend and a peer who’s nonjudgmental, you know, the core of what she’s dealing with, she’s dealing with alone.

And this is a pivotal moment in the film where, in the safety of a counselor’s office, she breaks down from the journey of what she’s been through. And I think that when women don’t have access, when they don’t have proper sex education, you know, when they don’t have resources and money, they are left to navigate a very complex, bureaucratic legal system, reproductive system alone. And this is an important moment in the film. And yeah, she’s crumbling.

We shot that scene in Margaret Sanger, you know, with the generosity of Planned Parenthood allowing us to use their facilities. And actually, the counselor who’s acting with her in the scene is a trained counselor who trained at Planned Parenthood that I met at Choices clinic in Queens.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Alexis McGill Johnson, before you go, have you gotten an increased number of reports of women having to travel these long distances, or any specific story in this country of what’s happening to women right now?

ALEXIS McGILL JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely. And, you know, I think that what Eliza has done here in bringing this film to life through narrative is so reflective of what we’ve seen, not just in the last few weeks around these executive orders, but what we’ve really honestly been seeing over the last few years as these restrictions go into place in these various states. And whether or not — you know, while many of them are being appealed, there’s still a tremendous amount of confusion around the restrictions. We’re seeing women who have to find child care. They have to do exactly as Autumn does: find a friend who will travel with them, will go the journey, who may not have the resources to pay for the procedure, much less pay for a hotel room. And I think that that challenge of what we’re seeing is being more intensified over the last month with these executive orders. And, you know, Eliza could not have predicted that art would imitate life so quickly, but it’s such an important film for us to really grapple with the amount of restrictions that women are facing when they’re trying to get an abortion.

AMY GOODMAN: Will send more and more women to having later abortions, because of their fear right now of going to hospitals or being told that abortion is not essential.

ALEXIS McGILL JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. And we saw it just in Louisiana. As you know, the Supreme Court is reviewing a case right now. And I talked to a woman who, very similarly, went to a crisis pregnancy center, was promised over and over again that they would help her get access to an abortion, and pushed her much later into her pregnancy until the point where she had to seek a surgical abortion. And so, the stigmatization, the shaming of women — not just of providers and organizations like Planned Parenthood — shaming women around their need to seek an abortion, I think, is also something really important and powerful that this film really brings out.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Eliza Hittman, can you talk about what it means for this film to come out now? I mean, you expected movie theaters around the country to be running this film. It has just had rave reviews, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of reviews. And yet, it comes at this time. In one sense, it may mean access to more people all over the globe seeing it, also at a time when the film festivals, one after another, are being canceled, or it looks like they might be, from the Toronto International Film Festival to the Sundance Film Festival. What does this all mean for you as a director and a writer, a different kind of access? You’re having Q&As online, virtual meetings with young women around the country. I watched one when you were talking to young women in Utah, that was run by the Planned Parenthood there.

ELIZA HITTMAN: You know, we didn’t expect theaters to shutter in the middle of our — you know, in the beginning of our theatrical release, but we had to pivot, you know, think about how the film could still reach audiences at this very vulnerable moment. And because of everything that’s happening in the states that we talked about, we felt like it was an opportunity to try and push the film into the homes of young women who might be like Autumn, who are very much alone with this issue and without access. So, you know, the film’s urgency tragically increases, and we hope that people are able to access it online. And we are doing a lot of grassroots outreach with Planned Parenthood and an organization called Cinereach to make sure that young people can see it, because they are the audience that I made the film for.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Eliza Hittman, congratulations on this film hitting at a very, to say the least, unusual time, but a film like this critical to be seen at this time. Eliza Hittman is writer and director of Never Rarely Sometimes Always. And I want to thank Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at what’s being tested now, what are the drugs to deal with COVID-19, what should we understand, this coming as the fallout from President Trump suggesting that maybe disinfectants should be ingested or injected into the human body, a very dangerous suggestion that now poison centers around the country are having to deal with. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: The Met Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera this weekend as part of its “At-Home Gala.” Yes, they were performing together alone, all in their homes.

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