A documentary created by several Indiana filmmakers brought home top honors at the Justice Film Festival in Philadelphia last weekend.
“3801 Lancaster” won Best Short Form Film at the festival, part of the second annual Justice Conference.
“It’s an honor and it’s humbling, and it was very unexpected,” said David Altrogge, the film’s writer and director. “I believe in the film and believe in the work that everyone did to make the film, but I didn’t necessarily think that we were going to win the award.”
Altrogge, executive producer Ian Murphy and director of photography Michael Hartnett live in the Indiana area, and producer Jen Thompson lives in Washington, D.C. While all four run Vinegar Hill, a production company in White Township, the film is a separate project, unrelated to the company.
Altrogge said he submitted the film in December or January, and that he was told the film would be one of 16 featured at the festival in January. It wasn’t until just before the film was screened that the award was announced.
“3801 Lancaster” tells the story of a Philadelphia doctor who was charged with eight counts of murder after an investigation into prescription drug fraud at his medical office discovered horrific malpractice, including the body parts of fetuses stored in jars and blood on furniture. (The name of the film comes from the office’s address, 3801 Lancaster Ave.)
Kermit Gosnell was charged in 2011 with eight counts of murder; he is accused of delivering seven infants alive and then using scissors to sever the spinal cord, killing them. He is also accused of murder in the death of a woman who was overdosed with painkillers during an abortion procedure.
Meanwhile, the grand jury investigation pointed to negligence on the part of the Department of Health; an onsite visit of the clinic had not been conducted since the early 1990s, despite complaints of injuries.
Gosnell has pleaded not guilty, and his case goes to trial this spring.
“This is a story that we didn’t want to be forgotten. We didn’t want the women and children who died there to be forgotten,” Altrogge said. “If it’s forgotten it’s going to happen again.”
He said he first heard about the story in a coffee shop, when he picked up a newspaper.
“I was shocked and horrified, just couldn’t believe it — but I had no thought of doing a film about it,” he said.
When a friend called and told him cameras would be permitted in a Senate committee hearing where the district attorney would testify about the investigation, the filmmakers decided to go.
“We didn’t know what to expect, we were just kind of staggered by the whole testimony of (District Attorney) Seth Williams. The film kind of went from there,” Altrogge said.
The filmmakers interviewed two former patients who told of their experiences at the clinic, as well as neighbors and activists outside the clinic and a reporter who covered the events. They also included footage from the Senate hearing.
One of the women interviewed in the documentary responded to a flier posted in the area; another they contacted after she spoke to news media, he said.
“It was a very difficult film to make,” Altrogge said, both because of the volume of information and the graphic nature of the images and stories they were told.
But he said he hopes it helps viewers “wrestle through” their convictions about abortion.
“I think on both sides of the abortion issue we’ve politicized it, it’s become a political, abstract thing,” he said. “We’ve forgotten that it affects real women, real children.”
The crew has been working on the film since early 2011. And it’s just the first of what Altrogge expects will be a series.
“We want to continue to follow this as the story goes, as the case unfolds,” he said.
To that end, Altrogge said they are forming a nonprofit film organization called SeaChange that will be dedicated to social causes like this one.
“We kind of realized through doing this film that we wanted to be able to do more films like it and tell stories that matter and tell stories that are important,” he said. “We think there’s a real power in film making and story telling.”
SeaChange does not yet have a website, but for more information or to watch “3801 Lancaster,” visit 3801lancaster.com or email info@3801Lancaster.com. Due to graphic images, viewer discretion is highly recommended.