Morgentaler shown as human in new documentary
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, October 8, 2007 2:41PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, May 29, 2013 1:16PM EDT
A documentary about the life of abortion doctor Henry Morgentaler portrays the controversial figure as a charismatic ladies' man who has found it difficult to maintain monogamous relationships.
The film "Henry," which makes its Canadian premiere at a Toronto screening Tuesday, features a rundown of the newsmaker's loves while offering up such bizarre scenes as a madcap Morgentaler winning laughs in a comedy skit and a shirtless Morgentaler - covered in body hair - playing table tennis in his basement.
The private moments stand in stark contrast to the doctor's typically measured persona in front of the public, when he's usually sounding off on the highly divisive issue of abortion.
Canadian filmmaker Dara Bratt, 31, says she wanted to make a documentary that revealed Morgentaler as a person, rather than as a political figure.
"With 'Henry,' I just really wanted to tell his story - not the story of the cause and its evolution, but really why he made the choices he did and capture his biography, present it to people," the first-time filmmaker says by phone from New York, where she's lived for about five years.
"I think I show (his) weakness and it's up to an audience to say whether they like him. He can be stubborn, he can be funny."
While there don't appear to be any significant revelations - Morgentaler's romantic prowess, mother issues and Holocaust traumas have already been documented in Catherine Dunphy's 1996 book, "Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero" - the film does offer bizarre images taken from the 84-year-old's home movies.
In interviews conducted by Bratt, Morgentaler's current wife Arlene Leibowitz - who is 30 years his junior - waxes on about the diminutive doctor's romantic charms, while son Yann recalls being told at age 12 that his parents were in an "open marriage."
Interviews with friends and two other sons reveal a man dogged by insecurity and depression, apparently stemming from feelings of abandonment by his mother and the trauma of witnessing Nazi atrocities. Friends like feminist Judy Rebick admit to being simultaneously inspired and infuriated by Morgentaler's strong will.
"He was as polarizing as the cause itself and really complex," notes Bratt, a pro-choice Montrealer who says she purposefully steered clear of including any actual debate over abortion.
"How is it that a Holocaust survivor escapes Nazi Germany and then puts himself in the position to go back to prison? How is he, on the one hand, called a womanizer, but on the other hand, sincerely leading a feminist movement? I found him very intriguing."
Morgentaler bristles at being called a womanizer, stating in a phone interview that he simply loves women.
"I like women, yeah," Morgentaler says. "If I didn't, I probably wouldn't have done all this and exposed myself to danger.
"There's not really many things I have to hide. (My life) is like an open book - I say what I mean. I've had a long battle for women's rights over the years and I'm proud of my achievements."
Morgentaler underwent a massive heart operation last year and says he's not as spry as he used to be.
He admits to being in a reflective mood, stating that he would like to write an autobiography and has recently published a booklet of poetry.
The 75-page collection, "Freedom is My Passion," includes meditations on his children, his lovers and surviving a concentration camp, but mostly it concerns the state of his soul, Morgentaler says.
"I thought it would be interesting for some people to have a sort of an entry into my soul, into my way of thinking and my way of perceiving things," he says. "I don't believe in a supernatural soul, but I believe in an existential soul.
"I don't believe in God or the supernatural (but) the soul in the sense of what's important and what is vital and what is the essence of a person."
Morgentaler says the booklet will be for sale at the Toronto screening on Tuesday.
Bratt says she's in talks with several distributors about getting the film, "Henry," into theatres across Canada.