On Midwifery and Moviemaking

'Birth Story'

‘Birth Story:’ ‘When we started,’ says Sara Lamm, ‘I learned that there was a movement of people who fought for their rights to have unassisted birth. So it was an eye-opener to realize that for some people Ina May and the Farm midwives are considered conservative.’

[Editor’s note: We republish this story from 2013 as a Mother’s Day special presentation.]

Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives is a loving portrait of the most famous midwife in the world, Ina May Gaskin, and her team of midwives. They live and work on The Farm, which began as an experiment in communal living in the 1970s. Though it deals with the contentious topic of natural childbirth, the film is neither a rallying cry nor a shocking exposé. Instead, like a midwife, it makes its statement with a light touch. Aided by extensive archival footage shot by The Farm’s media team, the film documents Ina May’s story as a self-taught midwife with an outstanding success rate and her intelligent but kind approach to childbirth. I spoke with filmmakers Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore while they were on the road with the film in San Francisco. Wigmore’s baby daughter, who was born 4 days after the Los Angeles premiere, was in attendance.

Keyframe: Other filmmakers must have approached Gaskin before. Was it hard to convince her to let you make the film?

Sara Lamm: Ina May said we were the first prospective filmmakers who had approached her who were mothers. And I think the style of questions that we asked made it clear that we were still freshly in our experience of being pregnant and having babies, and she really connected with that. She said that she’s always been a person who worked with her intuition and that her intuition told her that we would be good filmmakers to work with.

Keyframe: Five babies have been born to members of the Birth Story crew since production began. Was that a coincidence or was there something in the air?

Mary Wigmore: Something in the air.

Lamm: All of the births were without intervention and I think being around Ina May and the Farm midwives definitely was helpful in at least two of the cases. You can’t help but be affected by their attitude towards birth. It rubs off on you.

Wigmore: Yeah, more is possible when you spend time with them. One other crew member told me, ‘I can’t believe I had a natural birth. I don’t know how I did it.’ And I said, ‘Ina May rubbed your belly.’

Keyframe: As filmmakers and mothers, how does making a film compare to having a baby?

Lamm: Making a film is harder. But definitely there’s that sense, especially in documentary filmmaking, you have to show up and be open to whatever comes your way and in birth it’s the same thing. […] It’s wickedly painful at times and it helps to have good support, and in this case we couldn’t do it alone. So maybe Mary and I are like midwives for each other’s filmmaking process.

Wigmore: Yes, you are for me. What I love about filmmaking is that when you’re shooting you have no idea what’s going to happen. […] And I think birth is so interesting in that you never know when it’s going to happen. You could be out to dinner and your water breaks. I would love to give birth again because I’d just like to have that unknown part of it, you know? The mystery of how it’s going to happen.

Ina May Gaskin tests equipment in 'Birth Story.'

Midwife and icon Ina May Gaskin listens while attending childbirth in ‘Birth Story.’

Keyframe: Did you find out anything about the farm that you didn’t like?

Lamm: Well I think the history of the Farm is pretty complicated. And it’s well documented. So as filmmakers we wanted to tell the story that had to do with the midwives in particular. We were always making that choice. And we also felt like the challenges of communal living are pretty well known in this day and age.

Wigmore: There are two stories. There’s another documentary, just about the Farm. It’s sort of endless. We filmed a lot that we left behind, and like Sara said we really tried to stay focused on this group of women.

Keyframe: Did you learn anything about birth while making the film?

Wigmore: Tons. I learned so much I don’t know where to begin!

Lamm: I learned how complicated the politics around birth are. When we started I learned that there was a movement of people who fought for their rights to have unassisted birth. So it was an eye-opener to realize that for some people Ina May and the Farm midwives are considered conservative. There are people who want to have a planned C-section and people who want to wander off into the woods and come back with a baby. That’s two very different approaches.

Keyframe: What was your approach to filming a birth?

Lamm: We were careful to not make too big of an impact while we were there. We had internalized Ina May’s sphincter law and knew that we needed to make sure that the women felt really safe and not too distracted by us. […] We were certainly conscious of our impact on the birthing process but I think because we were conscious of that we didn’t have so much of an effect.

Keyframe: What has the response been like from men?

Lamm: So good!

Wigmore: They love it. They cry.

Lamm: An early male viewer said that he felt like he was getting to go behind a secret door.

Keyframe: What is the most common response you’ve gotten? The most surprising?

Lamm: We’ve had a lot of people say thank you, which is an incredible thing to receive as a filmmaker, and hugs when we walk out of the screening. The most surprising thing was a female film critic said that the birth scenes were the most action-packed scenes she’d seen all year.

Keyframe: It seems like the birth community has really picked up on the film and is helping spread the word. Have you gotten a sense of it going beyond the birth community?

Lamm: What’s shocking is that we’ve sold out so many screenings. Even if it’s ‘just’ a community of birth people it turns out that it’s a large group and that people are hungry for positive stories about birth, women’s leadership and women’s bodies. It’s not just about birth; it has a lot of implications for women’s lives.

Wigmore: Perhaps now it will be sort of a companion piece with the book and people will give the movie as well.

Lamm: It’s exciting when people who are not pregnant or have never thought about becoming pregnant see the film and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, I was afraid of childbirth and it looks so much less scary now that I’ve seen it.’ You know? It’s really exciting.

More on Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives at Birth Story website.

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