SXSW Film 2014 Day 8: Vessel Humanizes a Controversial Issue and Hannibal Buress Delights His Parents

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Nick Hanover

SXSW Film

Mostly by accident, a significant portion of my SXSW film coverage has centered on films that explore women's issues, from the unique body politic of Wetlands to She's Lost Control's examination of sexual surrogacy and Vessel fit right in with that loose theme. Vessel is devoted to Women on Waves, an organization that travels to countries with strict anti-abortion laws to help women, either through advocacy and advice or through more direct means, like bringing women on board the ship and providing them with the “abortion pill,” which pairs two medications in order to terminate pregnancy.

At the heart of Women on Waves and thus Vessels is Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, a Dutch Green Peace activist who realized that she could use the women friendly laws of the Netherlands and international waters to get around anti-choice legislation elsewhere. First time director Diana Whitten landed an incredible subject in Gomperts and her organization; Gomperts is full of passion and comes across as fearless, even when dealing with unimaginable scenarios, like the Portugese government sending out multiple warships to block Women on Waves' entry to the country. Rather than being a dry, overly restrained figure, part of Gomperts' strength is her willingness to get her hands dirty and skirt the law as required, but that's also her biggest weakness.

Vessel Women on Waves

Early on in the film, as Women on Waves are heading out on their maiden voyage, Gomperts concedes that she made a major mistake by leaving for Ireland before receiving the proper licensing for her operation. The Irish press, anti-choice groups and the women who thought Women on Waves would be able to help them all state their frustration and disappointment in Gomperts and her group, and the perception that the organization is operating in a legal gray area will plague WoW even after they've received the license. Gomperts will later also be questioned for a publicity stunt that involved placing a WoW abortion hotline banner on a statue of the Virgin Mary in Portugal, but that said, the impact Gomperts' campaigning has had in surprisingly hostile areas like Portugal is undeniable.

Whitten smartly presents Vessel with minimal fuss, keeping stylistic diversions to animated interludes that illustrate necessary data about abortion laws throughout the world and explain how the “abortion pill” works. Vessel isn't a pretty documentary, but when dealing with a subject that remains so frustratingly uncovered as abortion rights, that's arguably for the best, as it grants the figures represented within it a humanness that a bigger budget gloss may have detracted from. As represented in Vessel, Women on Waves is an organization that crosses ethnic, generational and income brackets, which handily illustrates how truly universal reproductive rights are. A segment towards the end of the film, which depicts Women on Waves' efforts to create help centers in areas that it would be difficult for them to visit more frequently, like sections of Africa, also helps showcase the way the organization has grown beyond its initial concept.

Women on Waves Vessel

Of the documentaries I watched at SXSW this year, Vessel is without a doubt the strongest. Whitten and Gomperts expertly detail the plight of women across the world, even in nations that one wouldn't suspect of being anti-women, like Portugal, Spain, Ireland and even the United States. Gomperts argues throughout that her organization's real mission is access, whether it's presenting info about legal, safe ways women can get around strict abortion laws in their home countries or merely showing women around the world that there is a network out there that can and will help them. Some of the most moving moments in the film are simply letters and e-mails sent to Women on Waves from women in trouble, and while the film could have stood to show more perspective, it makes a strong, passionate case for an issue that is too often reduced to hysterical soundbites on either end.

Moving in a completely different direction, the only other film I caught today was the premier of Hannibal Buress Live from Chicago! A special recorded for Comedy Central, Live! is in many ways a victory lap for the young Chicago comedian, and the debut of it at SXSW made that abundantly clear. Through weird luck, I wound up sitting next to Buress' parents during the screening, which is the kind of happy accident you hope to have happen at SXSW. Buress' parents pride in their son's accomplishments was contagious, even when Buress himself came and joined them just to apologize for some of the more risque bits.

Hannibal Buress

Buress' endearing, vulnerable charm has helped him stand out from the pack of overly cynical comedians that dominate the pop landscape, and it was great to see it was more than an act. Buress' special emphasized that, from an opening bit about how great it would be if he devoted his national special to all Chicago jokes to a joke about Buress' desire to eat a penguin sandwich just so he could say he did, which mostly succeeded through sheer force of will. Buress isn't a tame comedian by any means, but jokes that would make other comedians seem like assholes, like an anecdote concerning a girl telling him she'd show him her tits if he'd tell a joke which made Buress wonder if she'd be contractually obligated to follow up even if the joke was bad, are somehow warm and innocent in Buress' hands. There's a meta-element to Buress' routine as well, as he often comments on his perception of how people view his comedy and is keenly aware of where he fits in with the current crop of star comics, and you get the feeling that for as much as he plays up his naivety, he's exceptionally sharp and skilled at reading a crowd.

Hannibal Buress Marching Band

After a casual but entertaining Q&A, Buress brought in a marching band (a callback to a bit about how you can throw yourself a parade in New Orleans on a day's notice for only $300) and led the audience out of the theater to a soundtrack of a medley that included the Ghostbusters theme. Buress was full of an excitable energy, a sharp, welcome juxtaposition to the downright dour personalities of so many comedians and why shouldn't he be happy? The guy's got a great special, Comedy Central just picked up his series, and his parents were proud of him, no matter how many queef jokes he told.


Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter egos at Fitness and Pontypool. 

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