A pregnant young woman finds herself at an impossible crossroad. Abandoned by her boyfriend and left alone in a foreign country, growing ever more depressed as the due date for pregnancy approaches, she sees her options slowly vanish. She has grown distant with her friends and family. She’s is as desperate as anyone in her place can be, seeing only one alternative ahead of her: suicide. But as fate would have it, the ingested rat poison fails to kill her and takes only her unborn baby. The question now is: will the state of Indiana (a rather conservative state with strong ‘fetal homicide’ laws) convict her of murder?
With a documentary that was years in the making (and
only completed after a successful Kickstarter campaign), filmmakers Marion
Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt present the riveting case of Bei Bei Shuai, a
Chinese immigrant living in Indianapolis who was the first woman in the state
to be charged with feticide because of a failed suicide attempt. Lipschutz and
Rosenblatt began filming Bei Bei after her release from prison on bail – a bail
she was initially denied, leaving her locked up for 435 days – along with her
lawyer, Linda Pence, as they both fight for Bei Bei’s freedom. Far more than
the trial of a single individual, Bei Bei’s case has rippling implications. As
Linda puts it, a guilty verdict will set a dangerous precedent for the rights
of women in the state and perhaps the whole country.
Bei Bei employs a rather straightforward
narrative structure for a documentary of its type. It begins with Bei Bei
trying to restart her life out of jail, rebuilding her confidence as well as
her case against the state prosecutor. She rents a new apartment, gets her job
back, reconnects with old friends – anything to make her experience a semblance
of her former existence and freedom. Yet we are soon reminded through her
lawyer, Linda Pence, that as long as her case is still pending, Bei Bei’s
freedom is only temporary. She was released on bail and under severe
restrictions. We proceed through the film by slowly learning more and more
about Bei Bei’s story, her past life, her ex-boyfriend/fiancé, the manner and
circumstances of her attempted suicide, and the exact legal ramifications that
she faces. Linda Pence, who shares as much screen time as Bei Bei (if not
more), does most of the heavy lifting in the complex legal and political
explanations required to understand the case. Time passes, seasons and haircuts
change, and the long struggle ensues. We begin to realize the socio-political
significance of Bei Bei’s trial.
The topic of women’s reproductive rights in the US is riddled with controversy and divisiveness for anyone who lives here. Clips of George W. Bush, Mike Pence, and other state representatives in the film show us how the laws have changed, gradually shrinking the rights of women in many states. Soon, another key player, Terry Curry, is introduced as the county’s prosecutor. He supports Bei Bei as a private citizen, but because Indiana state legislature is clear on the subject of feticide, he feels he must proceed with the charge. And, of course, there’s an election coming and he does not want to lose his conservative crowd. The documentary does a great job at keeping all these threads in line and presenting the socio-political arguments with astounding clarity. The more we get into it, the more we find that Bei Bei’s case is far more complicated than what the prosecutor presents. A myriad of external and opposing factions are exerting their influence. As one state senator of Indiana puts it, “[Miss Shuai] is an unfortunate pawn in an ongoing ideological conflict… a proxy war.”
Nevertheless, Linda and the rest of her defense team
manage to cut through the legal clutter and make a plea deal with the
prosecutor (Linda’s reaction in this scene is priceless). Bei Bei’s story ends
on a happy note, and through her all women whose rights are at risk feel
vindicated. Or do they?
Well, one can’t say for sure. The documentary is too focused on the legal and political side of things, to stop and examine Bei Bei’s actions and make a case for her rights. And when it does, it is so fleeting that it gets lost in the minutiae. The filmmakers hope – perhaps justly so – that Bei Bei will become a symbol of her cause, leading by example. Yet, that hope begins to falter when we find that Bei Bei gets off on a technicality, in the end proving nothing.
Bei Bei presents an astonishing case that
everybody needs be familiar with, regardless of political affiliation. The
journey of this unfortunate woman is bound to tear at your heartstrings. As a
piece of political activism, on the other hand, the documentary’s powers of
persuasion and argument leave a bit to be desired. I imagine it is unlikely to
change anyone’s mind or appeal to many who don’t already agree with the
John Atom is two things: a molecular physicist by day and a devout cinephile by night. His love for Asian cinema started way back in high school when one rainy night he decided to pick up a rather peculiar-looking DVD of a movie called Oldboy... and he was hooked! Since then, he’s watched just about every Asian film he could get his hands on, and plans to continue doing so. More recently he’s developed a new interest in science fiction, particularly in the interdependence of science and SF, and how one may influence the other.