‘The Yellow Room’: Illegal Abortion as Feminist Gothic Horror Film

Young filmmaker Assal Ghawami has written and directed a film that brings together themes of "The Yellow Wallpaper" with a story of a contemporary back-alley abortion.

Young filmmaker Assal Ghawami has written and directed a striking short film about an illegal abortion. The Yellow Room is a reimagining of and homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the proto-feminist short story about a woman whose husband confines her to an upstairs room of their home as she slips deeper and deeper into mental illness.

In Ghawami’s film, which mixes sparse dialogue with dramatic, intense music and camerawork reminiscent of slasher films, Sanaz, a teenage Pakistani immigrant, finds the help she’s seeking from a brusque Latina woman in a tenement in an unnamed American city. In the film, another woman going through the same ordeal is present, but as Ghawami notes, so too, in a sense, are all the women who have come through and will come through houses like this.

An avowed fan of works by Gilman and the Brontës, Ghawami uses claustrophobia and an updated version of the doubling and Gothic tropes employed by these pioneering authors to create a compelling look at what happens on an emotional level to vulnerable young women behind closed doors.

Rewire recently spoke with Ghawami about her influences, why she decided to make the film, and more.

Rewire: What inspired you to bring the themes of “The Yellow Wallpaper” together with a story of a contemporary back-alley abortion?

Assal Ghawami: I read an article about a woman in New York City who had used RUDA, a medicinal herb, to end her pregnancy and then had gotten rid of the fetus in the garbage. It was shocking to me that any woman would feel forced to take that route.

Rewire: What do you imagine might have driven your young protagonist to this place? You mentioned in your director’s statement “patronizing laws.” Is this someone who would have struggled to get a legal abortion? Why?

AG: Sanaz is an immigrant who comes from a conservative, Muslim upbringing. A friend of mine worked in London in a sexual health center on the east side where she met a lot of girls similar to Sanaz. A lot of the patients looking for help at the center had often tried using herbs and other pills before they finally went there to seek professional help. The fear to be caught by relatives and friends drives them into taking dangerous health risks. In other cases, the problem is a language barrier, lack of insurance, or an illegal immigration status.

Rewire: What about Perkins’ iconic feminist story resonated in particular?

AG: Following the public discourse about reproductive rights is like watching a really bad B movie: The characters are one-dimensional, the plot is predictable, and their performance lacks style and good taste. When you write a script, you look at a character from all possible and impossible angles. In Gilman’s short story, a woman is kept in the attic by her husband. He prescribes her strict isolation in order to treat her postpartum depression. She starts seeing another woman behind the wallpaper and starts tearing the paper down in order to free the woman. At the end she claims the woman is free, and so is she when she steps over her husband, who faints in shock. In a way, women are still in that attic that Gilman describes in her story. The Yellow Room, similar to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is an exploration of an old conundrum. Ultimately it’s the women who deal with the consequences, no matter if you are pro-choice or anti-choice. I just want people to look at the debate from a new angle—from the eyes of the woman who goes through with the experience itself.

Rewire: On a personal level, from where do your interests in both the classic story and the contemporary health/political issue arise?

AG: My whole life I’ve been surrounded by very courageous and amazing women, including my mother and my best friends. When I was three my mother left Iran and my father and build a new life for us in Germany. She was tired of the macho mentality and wanted to offer me a more liberal lifestyle. She was in her mid-20s then, couldn’t speak German, and went to medical school while raising me. Her courage and discipline have always been a source of inspiration for me to strive for something bigger than myself. It infuriates me when people want to disempower women and objectify them for their own political purposes.

Rewire: Very few films actually have abortion scenes, and yours is basically one long abortion scene. Did you realize you were breaking a taboo?

AG: I don’t believe in taboos. They’re made by people who don’t want to face reality. The truth doesn’t hurt anybody. Only lies do.

Rewire: Any other films with abortion scenes that you’ve seen that interested you?

AG: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days from 2007, about two young women in Communist Romania who prostitute themselves in order to get an abortion from a dubious doctor. I remember watching it and praying it was going to be over soon. It was really painful, emotionally, and even a bit physically. Another one is Revolutionary Road about an American housewife in the ’50s who wants to end her pregnancy and emancipate herself from her unfaithful husband. The oldest I know is Where Are My Children from 1916. After a woman’s abortion she and her husband have to live an unhappy, childless marriage. In all of these films, women pay a high cost for taking control of their own lives. Sad that not much has changed for women in over 100 years of emancipation.

Rewire: Tell me about the setting—it’s among immigrants in a tenement house with a courtyard that has a very memorable clothesline with laundry hanging outside. How did you imagine it, and where did you film it?

AG: The movie was shot at a house only a couple blocks away from the Empire State Building in New York. In the script I had originally written a line for Teresa, the Hispanic medicine woman, which never made it into the final cut: “Los trapos sucios se lavan en casa!” (You should wash dirty laundry in your own house!”) The protagonist finds herself in the courtyard alone, and yet we can feel the presence of the women who have come before her and the ones yet to come. The camerawork is intense and unusual, making me as a viewer feel claustrophobic and panicky. This definitely resonated with the Gilman story. I worked very closely with my director of photography, Sheldon Chau, to create a subjective, visceral experience. We chose to shoot the entire film with only one lens, a 50mm, which conveys the sight of the human eye. The camera creates a feeling of nausea, dizziness, and confinement. The world of the film is the world as Sanaz feels it.

Rewire: I know the very haunting music in the film is original. How did that collaboration come about?

AG: I met my composer, Laura Dickens, at the New York University Film School. We just clicked somehow and share a similar sensibility regarding emotions that are evoked by music. It’s funny how one of my male teachers was very adamant about taking the music out of the film. To him it seemed to come from “different place” then my protagonist. With all due respect to his opinion, I decided that the music is 200 percent right.

Rewire: You make films that explore issues of social justice. How much of your obligation is to the art and how much to the social cause, or do they go together?

AG: I don’t think art needs a cause, but every social cause, hell yeah, needs art! People are so brainwashed by preconceived opinions and propaganda made by politicians and lobbyists. The only brain function most people use is their memory, in order to remember what others have said, thought, done. With our non-stop need for productivity and superiority, we don’t invest enough time in originality. Films can be a canvas in which we can find our own truth. Art encourages free thinking. I was raised very liberal by my mother. She grew up in Iran during the Shah regime so she raised me somewhat anti-authoritarian because of her own upbringing.

Rewire: How can audiences see your film, beyond the trailer?

AG: We have film screenings coming up at several colleges and film festivals. Submissions to the top-tier festivals are starting now. We are planning a one time online screening for our followers on March 31. If you are interested, follow us on our Facebook page. After the film festival screenings we will be showing the film in more public locations throughout the New York-New Jersey area.