If you’ve never had bedside seats to a live birth, here’s your chance.
Raw, nostalgic, and lovingly-crafted, Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s feature-length documentary, “A Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and The Farm Midwives” captures the 1970s countercultural zeitgeist of its titular band of self-taught midwives. Grainy footage depicts the early settlers of The Farm, an intentional community in Tennessee, enacting a utopian mission to “be in community, to raise children in another way, and to take care of the planet.”
Spearheading this mission is Ina May Gaskin, the film’s heroine, whose own fraught encounters with the medical establishment during her pregnancy led her to reclaim childbirth as a community-based effort. Arguing that medical knowledge does not have to be the property of a select few, Gaskin inspired a renaissance of homebirthing culture on The Farm that challenged the dominant trend of unnecessary pre-emptive C-sections and empowered mothers to be more autonomous in their own birthing processes.
“If you are calm and trust in your body, you stay open,” Gaskin tells us. “But if you are scared you will close shut. We need to understand how women’s bodies work, we need more women to see more births.”
And births you will see. Gaskin’s mission to demystify birth does not spare the viewer: prepare for a discomforting, full-frontal birthing experience.
At points the film drags on a bit (there’s a seemingly disproportionate amount of scenes of Gaskin quietly eating a sandwich) and although the sheer repetition of birth scenes perhaps takes away their potential dramatic effect, the lack of constant drama brings home the film’s point that Gaskin’s work was not meant to sensationalize birth but to humanize it.
The film details a diversity of births: look forward to water births, couples making out births, orgasmic births, and breech births. The slow and comforting cadence of the film juxtaposes starkly with shots of television fear mongering, where talking heads trumpet the perilous dangers of childbirth, implicitly relegating birthwork to more conventional medical facilities.
While the film provides an illuminating, historical glimpse into the creepy social mores passed off as medical knowledge (such as the role that propriety played: “doctors couldn’t have white women squatting”) there’s certainly room for a more intersectional approach. Despite its general achievements, A Birth Story is far from universal. Training its lens on a narrow community of able-bodied white heterosexuals, there’s little to no mention of those gender nonconforming individuals, people of color, or queer people who happen to have babies of their own.
Despite this exclusion, A Birth Story provides an important overview of the forgotten advocacy work that helped preserve homebirth wisdom and practices in the United States. Work that Gaskin, now a tough, no-bullshit, 72-year-old, continues to this day.
Sweet, gentle, and life-affirming to the end, A Birth Story deftly twines together the stories of the women from The Farm. The film lets the bizarre and beautiful phenomenon of birth speak for itself, gathering a broader origin story about the birth of a movement that fights to restore trust in women’s bodies.