There is literally nothing more natural than for a human being (or, really, any mammal on Earth) to give birth – it’s ostensibly the exact thing that the body was made to do. Yet, over time, the modern birthing process has turned into something rooted in fear – all that screaming, all that blood, all those terrified demands for doctors to “give me the juice!” – and the joy of having a child has been usurped by the presumed inevitable pain of delivery. Yet, in Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s tremendous documentary, Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and The Farm Midwives, the pair present a different way of thinking about and actually giving birth, and while those specific techniques may not be for everyone, their film does provide a very satisfying takeaway for the masses.
Gaskin is hailed as the most famous midwife in the world, but she came to her calling in a very basic way – she helped someone give birth while in her hippie heyday, and the impact of that unforeseen occurrence has changed every facet of her life. While Gaskin’s personality is not suited to the level of notoriety she’s attained – she’s not a showboat and she doesn’t seem interested in fame in the traditional way – her homespun common sense and no nonsense approach to things make her an obvious choice for an advocate and a mentor. One of the co-founders of The Farm, an American “intentional community” (perhaps better understood as a “commune,” though not exactly) still operating in Summertown, Tennessee, Gaskin’s work was born both of necessity and keen insight. Birth Story blends together both new and archival footage, along with a number of interviews with both Gaskin and other midwives, to illuminate the story of both the Farm and of modern midwifery.
Gaskin and the other Farm midwives (Gaskin now helps train new midwives in addition to providing birthing space and help to visitors on the property) might not agree with the modern techniques of in-hospital birthing, but they are certainly not crusading against them. Their real dedication lies with making the birthing experience a good one no matter where it happens, and though they do have a solid aim – reducing C-sections and beefing up breach birth instruction for midwives and doctors – their spirit retains the level-headed common sense that makes Gaskin such a knowledgeable and trustworthy source. And, truly, these women love what they do, and that love pours off the screen.
Before the film premiered at LAFF, Lamm and Wigmore good-naturedly asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d never seen a live birth; to those people who raised their hands, Lamm and Wigmore chuckled and confessed “that’s about to change.” And change it does – Birth Story isn’t exactly for the squeamish, as the film features no less than four extended birth sequences (and a brief look at one in the film’s opening credits, a sizable jolt to audience members who might have thought Lamm and Wigmore were kidding). Fortunately, Lamm and Wigmore use their chosen sequences to exceedingly well-crafted effect: the first sequence features archival footage of one of the original Farm midwives giving birth to her own child, and it’s an absolute best case scenario, a dream birth, which serves as a lulling segue into the next two births, one of which includes a breach delivery and the other which helps to illuminate the formation and use of the Gaskin Maneuver in delivery. The film closes out with another birth scene that, like the first, is a wonderfully positive experience and a sterling example of the miracle of birth.
As strange as it may sound, Birth Story is an overwhelmingly engaging (and, at times, just plain overwhelming) documentary that includes crowd-pleasing sequences that rival more typical stand-up-and-cheer fare. While it’s packed with footage that might not be for the faint of heart, it also pulsates and overflows with beautiful, beating life.
The Upside: Birth Story unexpectedly and seamlessly blends together both human stories and human emotions, resulting in one of the most eye-opening and strangely crowd-pleasing documentaries to play the festival circuit in quite some time.
The Downside: The history of the Farm is a long and complicated one, and one that Birth Story occasionally glosses right over.
On the Side: Gaskin’s “Spiritual Midwifery” is now in its fourth edition, and you can buy it HERE.