There’s an unforgettable moment in Songcatcher, Maggie Greenwald’s 2000 film about a university musicologist doing field work in Appalachia in 1907, when the musicologist is compelled to assist in a difficult home birth in a remote mountain cabin. Way out of her element, at first the professor attempts to flee, insisting that she has no training in this area—which is, in her experience, the province of licensed physicians. The matriarch of the mountain community—who by all appearances has been delivering babies all over the mountain for decades—demands that the professor stay and help the hemorrhaging mother push out the baby, bellowing, “DO IT, WOMAN!” Like many movies, Songcatcher makes high drama of childbirth, portraying it as a perilous, monumentally painful event—which, many times, it is, as only those who have personally experienced difficult births can authoritatively attest. But without saying a whole lot about it, Songcatcher also makes a point that’s rarely advanced in contemporary films, which is that women have been delivering one another’s babies for eons, and they’ve managed to get the job done even under challenging circumstances with no hospital wards or men in white coats within a country mile of the successful birth. Songcatcher doesn’t make this point aggressively; this scene is simply part of the story, just as home births and nonbiomedical births have been part of the lives of women and their families from time immemorial.
Recently, I had the strange and wonderful privilege of watching a contemporary home birth film that is not explicitly about advocating home birth or dramatizing childbirth, although in its own way, it achieves both. Produced by two Central Florida studios, the Nielsens Photography & Design (www.nielsensonline.com) and Cinema Chic Films (www.cinemachicfilms.com), Born at Home is an intimate and inspiring family film.
Within a few days after it was first posted on Vimeo, Born at Home went viral, garnering more than 24,000 views in its first week online. (A month later it's at 37,000.) Many of us have gotten used to the idea of superstar wedding films accruing large and disparate audiences through the magic of viral video— remote as this possibility may have seemed a few years ago. But in a way, it’s even more remarkable that we find ourselves watching a film of another family’s home birth in our own homes, offices, and studios; after all, there’s always a certain public performance element to a wedding, and no matter how personal we try to make it, spectacle always plays a role. But Born at Home is the story of a mother named Lisa Dunham birthing her third child in her own Florida home, in the presence of her family, midwife, and doula—and as documentable events go, it doesn’t get more personal or intimate than that.
I spoke with Cinema Chic’s Kat Small, the cinematographer on the shoot, who says this was her first time shooting a birth, although it will almost certainly not be her last. The idea, she says, came from photographer Cristy Nielsen of the Nielsens Photography & Design, who had shot births in the past but only with still images. She had several ideas about how the project might grow with video and sound. “She wanted to show women how beautiful birth is, and not to be afraid,” Kat says. “So much of what you see on TV is women screaming and cursing and pain, pain, ugly, pain. She wanted to show the other side. There is also a midwife that she’s worked with who wanted a teaching tool, something that she could show her future clients on her website.”
Kat says she had worked with Cristy once before, when they were booked for the same wedding, but she had never met the Dunham family before arriving at their house the day of the birth. Although she and Cristy had had some basic discussions of the shoot and what to expect at the home birth, there was really no plan and no concrete set of expectations regarding how to document this most intimate of family events. “The family was just kind of open to it. One reason Cristy had approached me was because I had an unobtrusive style. That was what she was looking for. Beyond that, I didn’t get a whole lot of direction. I just had to go on instinct.”
Kat acknowledges that circumstances worked very much in their favor with this particular birth, both in terms of the family they were working with and the shooting environment of the Dunhams' house. “The mother, Lisa, was very calm considering the amount of pain she was in. She never screamed, she never yelled, she just did her best. I was really ready for the whole screaming, cursing, swearing ugliness, so I was really surprised.”
What’s more, Kat says, “One of the nice things about the location we were in was that we had natural light. We were right next to sliding glass doors. I didn’t have to use a light, and Cristy didn’t have to use a flash. We wanted to be flies on the wall, just capturing the birth in its natural form,” and the natural light gave the two-woman camera crew (one photographer, one cinematographer) a huge assist in that regard. But the simplicity and, if you will, “natural” vibe of this production went beyond unobtrusiveness into a less cinematic approach than Kat would take at a wedding.
Driving to the Dunhams' house, she says she went through the usual thought process of planning her shots, mulling over how to create a dramatic opening, what gear to use, and so forth. “When I first arrived there, I had all my equipment—I had my Glidecam, my Glidetrack, all this stuff. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I thought, ‘How am I gonna start this? Go into their nursery and get all these artistic shots of the crib and slider shots of the toys?’ I never even saw the nursery because I don’t think they had one— this is a real home and it’s their third kid. I was just looking around and wondering what to do, then I got really lucky and Lisa’s boy picked up We’re Having a Homebirth”—a children’s book written by the midwife attending the birth—“and said, ‘Read this to us.’ From there it just unfolded on me--this is about the family. This isn’t about getting some artistic shots--can you imagine if I would have just grabbed a Glidecam and circled around the mom giving birth?”
As with a wedding, Kat found that this shoot was about letting the vibe and emotions of the day drive the shooting and the storytelling, but the vibe and emotions were notably different with a birth. “There was just this vibe: ‘Keep it calm. Keep it quiet.’ And it was all about the mom. So what I did was just pick up on the vibe and hang back and capture it.”
What resulted was something a world apart from what we associate with birth on film: a family, together at home, very much at peace. There are gorgeous moments in this film, from the doula reading to the children before the birth, to the unguarded intimations of intimacy of the father and mother, to still and moving images of the midwife and doulas quietly doing their work, to shots of the mother’s fatigue, to the very instant of birth, to the moment when the mother is holding the baby for the first time and remembers to tip him to one side just enough to check the sex. She smiles at her husband and daughter and says, “It’s a boy,” and they all laugh. It was a sweet, genuine, quietly offhand moment of family bliss. Throughout, the delicate and purposeful interweaving of Kat’s film footage and Cristy’s still images works seamlessly.
Image by Nielsens Photography and Design
And what comes next for the Nielsen/ Small team? The first step is getting Born at Home seen, which hasn’t been too challenging so far. “Right now, we’re just telling people, 'Feel free to repost it,' and it’s started to take on a life of its own,” Kat says. “But Cristy did reach out to a few birthing blogs and pages to help it get out there.”
Beyond that, Cristy is developing a documentary called Birth in America (which already has a Facebook page), and she says Born at Home will be the first of eight birth films that will comprise the documentary.
Kat says Born at Home was strictly a fly-on-the-wall shoot, but she did offer to interview the midwife before the actual day of the birth and use the interview as voiceover. Although they didn’t do an interview this time around-- “Right now,” Kat says, “she’s just happy with the way it is”--there may be interview components to the documentary. Kat also notes that Birth in America will be about much more than planned home births. Nielsen intends to shoot hospital births with midwives, hospital births without midwives, Caesarean sections, as well as films of different ethnic groups, “so she can show that birth is all the same in the end but can be very different in the process. That’s her plan right now. She hopes to do that in America and she also possibly wants to expand it around the world.”
Kat hopes to continue to do these shoots and help Cristy develop the documentary, but she admits that certain logistical issues could get in the way. “Right now, I’m saying ‘yes’ to working with her on this, but we’ll see how it goes. The problem with births is that you just don’t know when they’re going to happen. I still have to do other work. This one was done within a slow time for both of us, so we knew that within a 4–6 week time frame we could both make it there. She’s got one coming up in May and I told her I’m booked solid in May, so unless the mother goes into labor in the middle of the week, I can’t make it. Right now, we’re just going through the thought process of trying to expand this into something more.”
But as much as weddings may get in the way of shooting births, Kat says she sees birthing films as a logical extension of her wedding work and the relationships she builds with couples when she shoots their weddings. “I’ve had brides contact me in the past saying they wanted to do something [with a birth], but then they decided not to for some reason.” Since Born at Home went online, she says, “I’ve been getting calls from people saying, ‘We have photos, but we never thought about doing video.’ Video just adds that additional emotional layer to it, especially with the audio. You hear the baby cry for the first time. I just thought that was amazing. Now that this is out there, I think it will encourage more women to want to get it documented as a keepsake. It’s a continuation of life—wedding to family.”
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and program director of EventDV-TV.com.