Walking “20 Weeks” in Her Shoes

Leena Pendharkar, the writer and director behind 2010’s Raspberry Magic , debuted her sophomore film, 20 Weeks, at the Los Angeles Film Festival late last year to much excitement around its unflinching take on the challenges that can complicate a pregnancy. In the months following, each one marked by new attacks against women’s health nationwide, the film’s message has garnered a frustratingly reiterated, yet firmly renewed, sense of urgency. Now, a theatrical run of the film presents a crucial opportunity to engage in an intimate dialogue during an increasingly divisive time.

20 Weeks centers around Maya (Anna Margaret Hollyman) and Ronan (Amir Arison), two 30-somethings living in Los Angeles. In large part, the tribulations faced by Maya and Ronan were inspired by the harrowing realities of Pendharkar’s own second pregnancy; a routine scan at the 20-week mark reveals abnormalities that present a scary prospect—a mandible bone that measured incorrectly could leave their child with either a genetic birth defect that might threaten their child’s fundamental ability to breathe and eat or only threaten something as innocuous as the size of the child’s chin.

It was the not-knowing that scared Pendharkar, and her characters, the most. Without knowing for sure what might come from the abnormality, Pendharkar and her husband, as well as the fictional Maya and Ronan, were forced to decide whether or not to continue on with the pregnancy—knowing that the livelihood of their child was in an immeasurable and unclear degree of jeopardy. The film’s title, 20 Weeks, conveys a similar sense of danger: California, a state laudable for its encompassing abortion laws, still prohibits care after 24 weeks.

Pendharkar insists the film is intended to highlight the intimate  amidst the political, rather than the other way around—but the dearth of female-centric stories in media makes 20 Weeks almost innately political. “Women’s health issues like birth and abortion,” Pendharkar noted in an op-ed for the Daily Beast, “have been relegated to the realm of being ‘political,’ sadly.”

Attempts to remove politicized language even proved taxing.  In her director’s statement, Pendharkar  intentionally avoided the word “abortion” in her film, in part because those reading the script seemed to focus on its inclusion and in part because she didn’t want to further politicize what she conceived as a personal story—but in speaking with VICE ’s Tonic , she made her intentions boldly clear. “It’s about abortion,” she said plainly. “It is a movie about late-term abortion.”

Pendharkar lamented to The Daily Beast that abortion had been politicized, in some ways, out of its personal. “I think ‘late-term abortion’ is just a term that politicians throw around because it sounds interesting,” she wrote, “but I really doubt many of them have taken a walk in the shoes of a family who has had to face these difficult choices. If they had, they’d feel very differently.”

“They’ve clearly never been in the situation,” the filmmaker told Ms. about the mostly-male lawmakers legislating abortion into non-existence. “How can they make decisions or choices on this? It’s just wrong. These things should be based on science but they should also be based on humanity. It just all feels very arbitrary.”

20 Weeks offers an opportunity to walk in those shoes—and a unique lesson in how to represent a world populated by both “science” and “humanity,” excelling most notably in its ability to turn medical procedures tied with pregnancy and abortion, often portrayed as sterile, impersonal and frightening, into practices that are instead uniquely, and comfortingly, human.

For Pendharkar, the most crushing aspect of her own experience was the consuming sense that she was entirely alone in her struggle. Her film, then, seeks to find not just solidarity but much-needed healing and emotional support for those who have endured similarly isolating experiences in their pregnancies.

“My goal was to explore the issues in a multidimensional, humanistic way,” Pendharkar wrote in her op-ed, “showing just how devastating this situation can be for families—and especially for women, who often are given the ‘facts’ but not the emotional and mental health support that they need.”

Pendharkar notes a “funny thing” that happened as she began to share her story—other women began sharing their stories with her as well. As 20 Weeks begins to seep into the consciousness, another long-overdue explosion of women’s stories may begin to shine ever more light on the personal and political lives of women’s bodies.

Natasha Piñon is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a junior at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and journalism. She also writes for The Daily Trojan.