What made a midwife, an actress, and a doula/birth photographer decide to come together and make a documentary about Australia’s maternity system
If we skipped to the end of the article the answer would be… care. Three women who knew what the gold standard of care is for pregnant and birthing women… and between them having delivered it (the care, of course, not the babies- they were birthed), having been on the receiving end of it, and in my case, as a doula, having witnessed all of the alternatives.
Rewind to 2008 when Jo Hunter co-organised the Sydney Homebirth Conference and the Australian premiere of the documentary, the Business of Being Born (BoBB). Whilst the BoBB was a game-changer of a film, it was American and therefore a lot of people dismissed it as being irrelevant to us. Creating an Australian birth documentary was an idea and a pipe dream in her head. Fast forward to about 2015 when Jo and I met and became friends, she told me of her idea and showed me a homebirth film from the 1980’s called Labour of Love. The film was funded by the ABC and was a quaint, simple and quite delightful film which followed three homebirth midwives in Sydney and the Blue Mountains. It seemed like such a good resource to share in regards to birth, and particularly homebirth, but as lovely as it was, it was very dated (including lots of lovely pubic hair!). So we started dreaming of the possibility of making Labour of Love II. A current, Australian birth film. We went so far as to get permission from the filmmaker to do this (although she was slightly bemused that we wanted to go to the effort of making a homebirth film - having been there herself and knowing the time, money and effort that goes into such a thing).
We became a little perplexed by how on earth we would go about making a film between the two of us, so the idea remained a dream. Later that year Zoe Naylor booked Jo to be her midwife for the birth of her second baby in 2016. Zoe had birthed her first baby in hospital and this time was looking for care with more depth. A little closer to the birth Zoe also called me - as she had decided she wanted to have her birth filmed. She was germinating an idea about a TV series and wanted to have the footage available to use for that. The birth team was set.
Zoe’s birth of Beau was a magical evening and she was astounded by how different she felt having received true, one to one continuity of midwifery care. In the conversations that followed, Jo showed Zoe The Business of Being Born, and told her of our dream to make an Australian birth documentary. Zoe was in. Together we decided it was time to find out why so many women were coming out of their births traumatised, why birth related PTSD is on the rise, and why we have a postnatal depression epidemic.
At this stage I was in the second trimester of my first pregnancy, so what better trio to start making a documentary - a newborn mother of two, a pregnant woman and one of Australia’s busiest homebirth midwives. The urgency was real.
The mission became clear...to ask the question- what would it take for women to emerge from their births physically well and emotionally safe?
I had cameras which were enough to start filming, so we bought sound and lighting equipment, learnt where the ON buttons were and hit up Hannah Dahlen to be our first interviewee. By this stage I was 35 weeks pregnant and Beau was 4 months old.
Our timing could not have been better… in two weeks time the Normal Labour and Birth Conference was coming to Australia, and Hannah was organising it. Jo and I were to be attending the conference and after her interview Hannah said, “If you’re really making this documentary you need to make the most of these people being in the country. I will connect you with anyone you want.” We flew into action, Hannah played cupid and we found ourselves for the entirety of the conference in a private room, with the likes of Lesley Page, Sheena Byrom, Soo Downe and Melissa Cheney rotating through to share their expertise.
This was October 2016. One week later I gave birth to my first baby, at home, with Jo as my midwife. Hands down best day of my life.
We had about a 6 week hiatus and from there things snowballed. We were back at it-interviewing whoever we thought could lend their opinion to answer our burning question. We fitted these filming sessions in between birthing women, young families, running businesses, writing a thesis, speaking at conferences and many, many other things. We spoke to the likes of Sarah Buckley, Rachel Reed, Rhea Dempsey, Nicky Leap, Pat Brodie, Andrew Bisits, Andrew Pesce, Kirsten Small, Jane Hardwicke Collings, Sheryl Sidery, Bashi Hazard as well as following several women in their pregnancies and births both at home and in hospital, and
interviewing many other women and partners. We travelled with our babies in tow, often with one of Jo’s teenage daughters with us to look after the little ones whilst we filmed. We breastfed through interviews, filmed women sitting on their beds with our babies lying asleep next to them, just out of frame, and conducted interviews in Air BNB’s after bedtime with the kids asleep in the next room. Again, the urgency was real.
During this whirlwind of interviews, we met Olympian Selina Scoble while in Brisbane. Initially we interviewed her for her story as a 40 year old first time mother with various risk factors, and how she was being treated in the system. But our relationship with Selina quickly escalated and she became a key member of the Birth Time team. She is our behind the scenes goddess who is constantly tinkering away at all the little unseen things- our emails and website, accounts and merchandise as well as helping to plan and execute our next big moves.
Our filming took us to some incredible places, none more incredible than to Alice Springs in July 2018. By this stage our babies were old enough to be left with their fathers for a few days so we jetted off to Alice with the two co-chairs of the Birthing on Country Project- Mel Briggs and Cherisse Buzzacott, to film the story of these two women working together, and to visit Cherisse’s home country.
We also started hosting live events, as a way of bringing the birthing community together to boost education, moral, and a sense of togetherness. We have hosted three events to date - Feminism and Human Rights in Childbirth with Hannah Dahlen and Bashi Hazard, An Evening with Rhea Dempsey, and Birthing on Country with a panel of the key players from the project. All of these events are available to watch online through our website.
Early 2019 after over 60 interviews, we decided it was finally time to draw a line under the filming side of our project and start to carve this body of work into something digestible. It was decided that our beautiful friend and honorary sister Ryan Harrison and i would take on the first pass of this mammoth task. Ryan and I spent the next 5 months locked in his studio bachelor pad with his dog, Biscuit and lots of dark chocolate, watching and scribing every single interview, and pulling together themes and threads which ran through 2.5 years of interviews. At times it felt like an insurmountable project, but by the end of the 5 months we had a 1 hour 45 minute film which was so dense with information, it felt like being hit over the head with a baseball bat.
Simultaneously while this was going on, Zoe was on a fast learning track of the executive producers role. She threw herself into learning the ins and outs of the film industry from the angle of funding and government tax offsets- otherwise known as “how the hell you find enough money to finish a film”, because post production in films is the money equivalent of a postpartum hemorrhage. Since then we have agreed on, and then pulled out of a deal with a post production house, and as well as never quite agreed on and consequently pulled out of a distribution deal, all because we weren’t feeling respected and listened to, and they wanted more than we were willing to give. We have likened our experience to a birthing woman in the system more than once in this process.
In October last year we revisited the hour forty five baseball bat of a film- Zoe, Jo and I locked ourselves away together for 36 hours and re-edited it to a much more palatable 1 hour 20 feature length documentary.
We call Jo our Captain. Our chief breath taker. Whenever we need direction on something, whenever we need a decision finalised, we turn to her. Her wealth of knowledge having worked as a birth worker, activist and private midwife for over 20 years has been the bedrock of this project. Being held in such high regard in the birth world is what has given us access to the incredible array of people that have come on board our project.
Through Zoe’s wizardry on the finance and relationships front we have landed ourselves in the incredible hands of Spectrum Films at Fox Studios for all of our post production, we have original animation and composition created by amazing artists, we have a new distribution deal and our film will be finished next month.
And then comes the slightly heartbreaking part of the story- which someday we are sure will be viewed as simply a bump in the road… we were set to release our film at the end of April, tour the country with screenings and Q&A’s in 13 locations, and start the next chapter for what we have planned to change the landscape for birthing women. But alas, the world has ground to a halt. So, like any good midwife would, we sit with what is, not with what we want to be (thank you Jane Hardwicke Collings) and we wait for when this baby of ours is good and ready to be born.
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