Reel Talk DC with Brigid Maher Director/Producer of The Mama Sherpas
Pharoh Martin: Welcome to Reel Talk with Film DC. This is your host Pharoh Martin, director of communications with the DC Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, also known as the DC Film Office.
This month we are here with Brigid Maher, director and producer of the documentary "The Mama Sherpas" and associate professor of the School of Communications at American University. The documentary gives an intimate look at midwives and their patients working in the hospital system. We're so happy to have you. Thank you for joining us.
Brigid Maher: Oh, thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to be here.
Pharoh: Very good. First, let's tell our listeners a little bit about your movie. In your words, what is "The Mama Sherpas" about and why did you think it was important to make this film?
Brigid: "The Mama Sherpas" profiles four very different midwifery collaborative models in the United States. These are midwifery practices that work within hospitals across the US, one in California, in Davis, California, one in Springfield, Massachusetts, one in Alexandria, Virginia, and here in DC, GW hospital.
Pharoh: How did this whole documentary come about? How did you connect with Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein? How did they become attached to this project?
Brigid: Well, the inspiration for the documentary came when I gave birth to my nine‑pound, 10‑ounce baby girl three‑and‑a‑half years ago. She was born as a vaginal birth after cesarean.
I guess my journey actually started about seven‑and‑a‑half years ago when I had my son by C‑section, and I really wanted to avoid that long recovery again, and some friends suggested that I seek out midwifery care as the best possible option for having a vaginal birth after cesarean.
It was that experience over the nine months of receiving this prenatal care that began to give me a kernel of inspiration to tell the story of hospital midwives. This is not...the majority of midwives, 95 percent of them work within the hospital system, but I think the American public overwhelmingly associates midwives with home birth, and of course midwives do home births, but that is not where the majority of them practice.
Again and again, as I would share my experiences about my care that I received from the midwives, people would say, "Oh, I could never do a home birth," and I kept thinking, "But that's not what I'm doing."
I knew that there was a story to be told, a documentary. I wasn't sure I was the one to tell it, but then after I gave birth to my daughter, I literally blurted out that I was going to make this documentary to my midwife who...I mean, I literally had just given birth to my daughter, and she just looked up at me, and she said, "That sounds great," and then I basically started working on it from there.
In the process of making the documentary, I reached out to the birth community, and I talked to experts in the field to see, "What are the stories that really need to be told? What are the issues? How can we maximize the impact around the film in terms of creating a social movement so that we understand the role that the midwifery model of care can provide for women?"
In the process of doing this outreach, I had the great honor of having a web series that I was producing, while I was shooting, be picked up by My Best Birth, which is the social media portal website for Business of Being Born, and Ricki Lake, and Abby Epstein.
I had been in contact with them, and then when I completed the film, I was thrilled and honored that they wanted to come on board as executive producers and represent my project with me.
Pharoh: I'm sure that their affiliation helped this film tremendously. How has this film been received by film critics and the birthing community so far?
Brigid: Well, we've been really, really excited in that our film was released to digital on July 21st, and we received a great, great review in Hollywood Reporter and other mainstream publications, so of course we're thrilled about that, but I think that what we're even more thrilled by is how it's being received by the birth community.
I very carefully researched this film prior to shooting and throughout the process. For me, it was really important to show the breadth and diversity of care and models within midwifery that midwives work within, so we have midwives working within a hospital birthing center where they take care of women.
They have water births. They work collaboratively with doctors so that women can receive care such as vaginal deliveries of their breech babies when the conditions are deemed safe.
In Springfield, Massachusetts, I was able to actually follow women who were receiving care from public health care centers where the midwives worked, and I also was able to follow a story of a recent Somali refugee who turned out she had placenta previa, so she needed to have a C‑section, so I saw how midwives cared collaboratively with doctors for women who were high risk and could not deliver vaginally safely.
Then also just here in the DC area, how midwives serve.
Pharoh: What were some of the things that you learned in the process of filming this documentary, such as how has your perspective changed from when you began the project to when you completed it?
Brigid: I think that the breadth of women that the midwives serve was something that was a real takeaway for me. Because I am...I'm a middle‑class professor, mom, I was going to GW Hospital to receive my care, when I coming up with this idea, initially I didn't really know that much about midwives. I didn't even really realize that midwives worked within the hospital system.
Then as I began to research, due to the great consulting support of the American College of Nurse‑Midwives, I began to realize that midwives work with a diverse group of women from the beginning teenage years throughout their lifetime, and additionally that they meet women where they are in their lives, and they work to provide holistic support for them.
I can give you an example where I would see up at Bay State midwives didn't just provide care in terms of, "How's your baby?" checking the position, measuring, and things like that, but they really took the extra time to arrange for bus fare so that if the mother doesn't have a lot, she can make it to the appointments.
Consulting with high‑risk doctors to create a real consistency of care when the woman is transitioning into a high‑risk care situation so that they're still there as a resource and as a support.
In the film I had the privilege of filming a midwife who had started a centering group for Somali refugees, and centering is a model of prenatal care started by a midwife where it takes place in a group setting, where everybody sits around and they talk about what's going on at their particular moment in the pregnancy.
What she realized in the process of starting this centering group with these Somali refugees is that there was a lot more going on in their lives than just taking care of their pregnancies.
They were dealing with issues of transition, of language barriers, and one day I was filming them, and she brought up the issues of PTSD that came up when they were refugees in camps, whether it was in Kenya, or Ethiopia, or even experiences that they witnessed or that they experienced Somalia, and that's what they talked about.
They didn't talk about their pregnancies on that particular day. Instead they talked about their experiences and how they're trying to cope with PTSD.
Just to see how midwives went on a regular basis beyond the call of duty to provide women with holistic care, they realized that there's a real need for these women to talk about their experiences and they addressed it. That was incredible.
Pharoh: That's actually pretty insightful in regards to the way that they handle pregnancy and the way they view it, but as a filmmaker, what were some of the difficulties and challenges you faced while filming?
Brigid: I think that the most obvious challenge is that I have to be very careful in protecting the interests of the women that are being cared for.
I worked very closely with the hospitals and the medical systems, the midwives, to protect their rights, both in terms of, of course, legal things such as HIPAA, but then also to be very sensitive to their needs so that I was never filming something where they were uncomfortable, or it would've put them in any kind of emotional danger, or any kind of other difficult circumstances.
I was really sensitive to how I approached the filming, and I can give you an example. I was filming one woman who...I was following a story that is actually in the DVD extras but didn't end up in the film, where at Sutter Davis they have a volunteer doula service, so I was really focused on the doulas.
They were caring for a woman who was just in a birthing pool, going through the...she was in, what they thought, passive labor transitioning into active labor, and she was pregnant with twins. Now, she was...in the process of receiving the doula care, she actually spontaneously gave birth to her first child.
It was incredible, but the father was out of the room, so he runs in, and I realize at that moment this is not a moment where I should be present, that this is a real moment for the family, so I just stepped out immediately.
The care providers came up to me afterwards, was like, "How did you know to leave? That was the best thing that you could have done," and I think for me as a filmmaker, being very intuitive and very present so that I know when is appropriate to have my camera recording and when is appropriate for me to step out was crucial to earning the trust of both the medical providers, but then also the women who I was filming.
Pharoh: Did you typically have crew with you or was it basically you and the camera and your subjects?
Brigid: It was basically me and a camera. There was a couple of times when I had another person on‑call to film. There's this beautiful delivery at the end of the film that was not filmed by me but actually filmed by one of my students, because I was actually in California filming at the time.
But we were really a one‑person crew because you're in either a practice office that's very, very small, so there's not really room for a crew or anything like that, or during the labor and delivery process we were not going to set up lights, we were not going to be in any way conspicuous or interrupt the experience for the mama, and her family, and the providers, so I took up a very tiny footprint.
Pharoh: I remember you saying you had subjects from California to Alexandria, Virginia, and I believe you said Springfield, Massachusetts.
Pharoh: How did you select these four subjects, and how did you approach them for them to share a very personal moment or process?
Brigid: Well, I really went to the practices first. Not everybody who I approached said yes, there were certainly some midwifery practices where they just were not comfortable having me film.
But that's where I was really able to connect with the American College of Nurse‑Midwives and have partners within the birth community before I even began filming to support and basically say, "You can trust her. She's a university professor. She's worked with difficult and sensitive material before."
My previous film, "Veiled Voices," covered three Muslim women religious leaders across the Middle East in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, so I am very experienced in working with sensitive material. By creating these relationships early on, it was really important to then gain the trust of the hospitals.
Through that process, I was able to then make relationships with these four different midwifery models, and specifically it was important for me to feature four different types of models. We have a large practice model. We have a smaller model. We have physician and midwives working very closely. We have models where midwives appear to be rather independent but within an obstetrics unit.
Pharoh: Well, a little more about yourself as a filmmaker, you've been making films for over 20 years, or about 20 years. I see 10 credits as a director. Tell us a little bit about how you got into the craft.
Brigid: I was very interested in storytelling when I was an undergraduate. My background was in philosophy and international affairs, but I began filmmaking in college because I really saw it as a great umbrella to explore and learn about everyone and everything.
Then I became very interested through my studies in the Middle East, so as I was traveling and living in the Middle East, it was so different than from what we were hearing the media, what my peers back in the United States thought, that I realized that I really had a responsibility to tell these stories and bring them to the American public so that we better understood people living within the Middle East.
That's really how it started, was by making films about the Middle East for the American public to help demystify our stereotypes that we have, so really, filmmaking has been a calling for me to tell stories and to call us into thinking so that my films aren't so much about making you think one particular thing, but really to challenge your own perceptions and then start the process of discussion.
Even with "The Mama Sherpas," it doesn't tell you that midwifery is the...this the way to go, but rather it just shows four very different models of midwifery, and after you watch the film, you are inspired hopefully to seek out further answers and to educate yourself.
Pharoh: What is the best piece of advice you can give as a filmmaker, as a film professor, to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
Brigid: Oh, I think that the biggest piece of advice is to embrace failure as part of the process. Not every film that you make is going to be the best possible film in the world. Filmmaking is iterative.
It's...you get better as you do it, so to just really embrace and almost be joyful about your failures because every time you don't do something the way that you wanted to do it, you're going to be able to empower yourself to get a little bit closer to where you want to go in terms of your sense of authorship and your storytelling craft?
Pharoh: What's next for you as a filmmaker? Do you have a next project or what's next for "The Mama Sherpas," if anything?
Brigid: We are incredibly excited to work with midwives across the country to see how "The Mama Sherpas" can be used for social impact and as an advocacy tool.
Specifically we're working on a state‑by‑state basis to screen "The Mama Sherpas" so that we can advocate for full practice rights for midwives as well as to petition insurance companies to provide full and equal reimbursement with their physician counterparts.
We have a long tail impact strategy for the film so we're going to be continuing to work on that for a couple of years.
In the meantime, as a storyteller, I loved working within this film of women and public health that I'm currently researching an additional documentary within this area as a follow‑up, but then I also have my project that I would absolutely love, love, love to tell, which is a documentary retrospective project about...
Over 20 years ago I was living in Ramallah, Palestine, and I directed "The Autumn Garden" at Birzeit University. It's a beautiful, beautiful play, and I would love to go back and film the people who participated in that play and just see where their lives are 25 years later, so I'm currently working on that, and maybe in the next 5 to 10 years I'll be back talking about that.
Pharoh: Finally, tell us why it's important, why the DC film community is important to your work.
Brigid: The DC film community...I've lived here for 11 years, and DC is such a culturally vibrant, diverse, incredible place, incredible place to tell stories, and I think in particular with "The Mama Sherpas," we have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country.
This story of collaborative care really hits home because midwives are part of the solution of the obstetric crisis in America, and there are midwives working in Washington, DC right now to help curb the maternal mortality crisis.
I think that this particular film has a really special place in the consciousness of Washington, DC, and it's just incredible to be around such amazing talent, and I absolutely love teaching at American University and working with my students. It's a great privilege to be able to make films and to teach at the same time.
Pharoh: Great. Well, we want to thank you for coming by DC Film Office and being one of our guests for Reel Talk. Do you have any last thoughts?
Brigid: Well, just thank you so much for letting me come here and talk with you. It's been a real honor.
Pharoh: Thank you for tuning in to Reel Talk with Film DC. This is your host, Pharoh Martin, signing off. Don't forget to check us out on the web at film.dc.gov, like us on Facebook at facebook.com/filmdc, and follow us on Twitter @dcfilmoffice. Catch you next time.
Transcription by CastingWords