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Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & the Farm Midwives: Film Review

Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & the Farm Midwives - H 2012

The Bottom Line

Challengingly graphic but good-natured doc is an eye-opener on midwivery.

Opens

Wednesday, Jan. 16

Directors

Sara Lamm, Mary Wigmore

A pioneering midwife makes her convincing case for a shift away from contemporary attitudes toward childbirth in the documentary directed by Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore.

Reviews of Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore's Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & the Farm Midwives will inevitably warn that the doc -- which weaves graphic footage of many childbirths into its narrative -- isn't for viewers with weak stomachs. That response would likely sadden Gaskin, a leader in the midwife-revival movement who, as we see in scenes of funny, patriarchy-tweaking lectures , has worked hard to change attitudes toward childbirth. The effective doc makes her attitudes and techniques look unarguably commonsensical, for the most part; while many distribs will shy away from such graphic material, the film may thrive in niche bookings and will benefit from enthusiastic word-of-mouth on video.

Gaskin, author of 1975's influential Spiritual Midwifery and numerous other books, would seem to fit some stereotypes that go with alternatives to modern medicine: Early participants in the San Francisco hippie scene, she and husband Stephen Gaskin helped found an enormous and long-lived farm commune in rural Tennessee. It was on a caravan-like speaking tour that she and like-minded women began to share stories about birthing experiences, and where she first participated in a delivery.

But if she's a hippie to the bone, Gaskin and her colleagues have developed a vast storehouse of knowledge during four decades of practice -- a practice that integrates folk wisdom with science, and acknowledges the need for conventional obstetrics and surgical deliveries, even as it argues that C-sections should be vastly less commonplace than they are.

Telling the commune's story alongside that of this midwife practice, Lamm and Wigmore find satisfied customers both young and old; frequently, interviews are intercut with decades-old video footage of the subject in the middle of labor. We watch breach deliveries and other challenging cases, and see various ways -- like having young children present -- in which the group has tried to change perceptions of childbirth as something to be dreaded. (Some techniques were short-lived: A former farm midwife laughingly recalls a period when it was considered "more spiritually advanced not to wear glasses.")

Even as the size of the commune waned, Gaskin's influence continued to grow: Present-day footage finds her addressing large audiences, doing press tours, and instructing the many college-aged women hoping to follow in her footsteps.

Production Company: Ghost Robot
Directors: Sara Lamm, Mary Wigmore
Producers: Sara Lamm, Mary Wigmore, Kate Roughan, Zachary Mortensen
Music: Robin Pecknold
Editor: Kate Amend
No rating, 95 minutes