A still from the documentary "After Tiller" by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson

After Tiller, a documentary about late-term abortion doctors, opens theatrically in New York on September 20, 2013. (Photo: © After Tiller)

Putting the “D” in D-word, and brazenly serving the spinach on your plate, After Tiller co-directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson are practically daring audiences to look away. Do it, though, and you’ll be missing a powerful and moving film that will stick with you — and I’m not talking about a bad aftertaste.

After Tiller is the story of the four late-term abortionists left, after Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in 2009 for providing third-term abortions in Kansas.

With such grim subject matter, you know you’re not in for a Disney ride. You’re not going for the chuckles. Still, this is not a message movie. Shane and Wilson did not approach the subject with an agenda, nor do they hue to a party line. They profile these doctors, and what they do, with a strong storytelling sense.

This isn’t your grandma’s frozen spinach.

I met Shane and Wilson on the festival circuit and caught up with them last week as they entered the final stretch before the film hits theaters at Film Forum and Lincoln Center in New York City. Both were “enjoying the ride” of having a film that has been embraced by the documentary community. But at the forefront of my mind is, with subject matter like this, will the general public choose to spend a Saturday night getting to know late-term abortionists?

We’ll see. But because the subject is so daring, and the filmmaking so solid, I wouldn’t be surprised if After Tiller makes it on the Oscar short list for Best Documentary this year. There, you heard it here first. Now, eat your greens.

Doc Soup Man: Could you think of a subject more alienating than a documentary about late-term abortionists?

Martha Shane: We didn’t come to the subject thinking, “Oh God, this is going to be depressing.” What we thought was that it was guaranteed that to be dramatic and emotional. Here are these doctors who are being targeted by extremists. We wanted to ask: Why would they be doing that?

Lana Wilson: We thought we’d be in intense, compelling situations that are gripping and exciting, more than distressing. We started working on the film a year after Dr. Tiller was killed, and we wanted to see how they were still doing this work.

Martha Shane: And it’s actually inspiring to see these doctors who are so against the wall, dedicated to their cause.

Doc Soup Man: But do you think it will be a big draw for audiences?

Martha Shane: Well, we are waiting for offers for the Broadway musical version.

Doc Soup Man: What do you think will compel people to see it?

Martha Shane: We hope that because it’s one of the most contested political issues of our time, And that people will be looking to have an unbelievable, emotional experience.

Lana Wilson: And there are a lot of things in this movie that people won’t know. People will be surprised.

Doc Soup Man: Having spent some time with you two, I have to say, you seem like unlikely filmmakers for this subject. You don’t seem to be the hardened, feminist types.

Martha Shane: We are feminists, but not hardened. It’s true that working on this film has definitely put an end to a lot of cocktail party conversations. Someone asks what we are working on, and they nod and say, “That’s interesting. I think I am going to get a drink.”

Doc Soup Man: What are the best-case/worst-case scenarios that can happen on Friday?

Lana Wilson: The best thing to happen is that we fill the theaters and people say, “Wow, a movie about abortion can bring in audiences in droves!” The worst thing is that Martha and I are sitting alone on Friday night, getting a drink. At the least, we would toast ourselves and our movie.

After Tiller opens in New York on Friday, September 20, 2013, then in Los Angeles and Toronto on Friday, October 4. For more screening cities, visit aftertillermovie.com.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen