Thursday, May 1, 2008

Thoughts on Delhi's First Childbirth Film Festival

A few of Birth India's Members

Delhi’s first Childbirth Film Festival - organized by Delhi Birth Network and the Kriti Film club - came to a close yesterday evening! The last two nights have been a wonderful exploration of birth practices and experiences from around the world! I was particularly pleased to see that our audience was also quite diverse – several doctors I’d worked with in government hosptals, NGO’s, and private practice attended. Additionally, Bhimla Ji, an experienced Dai with Asha, also accompanied me to the films and gave a short intro about her work as a Dai.

Before I write a little about the films, I would like to mention some thoughts on a similar film viewing needs to be held at UNC, Chapel HIll. It is so important for women and men in college to start exploring birth, our bodies and sexuality before pregnancy even becomes a concern. To have choices in birth, we must know how birth - both natural and medicalized - shapes our society and ourselves. Ideally this education should start when we are born, but, unforunately, for the majority of people, this education usually comes after a disempowering birth experience.

From observing the dynamics between most pregnant women and their mothers/peers, I have come to believe that our birth trauma is generational – our concept of birth is shaped by the birth experinces of our mothers and our soceity. Only two generations back, women were birthing under “twilight sleep”, a drug induced state in which women lost all memory of their birth. It was routine to strapped women to the bed with lamb’s wool to prevent injury caused by the drug’s violent side affects. This is only one example of our generational birth trauma. The media's violent depicitons of birth only worsens this bondage by overshadowing positive birth experiences. The fact that a year ago I knew very little about birth or my body testifies to the need for increasing education and awareness among women and men in my age bracket! I hope that showing these films to my campus will begin to deconstruct our trauma and fear based understandings of childbirth, our bodies and ourselves as human beings.

We viewed two films on the first night, Tuesday the 29th:

Produced by Polymorph Films in association with MoysA(C)s and Claudio
Paciornik, 1979. (10 mins, Brazil)

“Filmed in Brazil more than two decades ago, this extraordinary video shows a string of entirely hands-off natural birth. In all of the births shown, the baby is allowed to make its way out of the birth canal untouched, to land softly on a blanket placed beneath the squatting mother. The few times we do see a pair of gloved hands appear onscreen, they are there only to reach out to catch the baby's head, after the baby's body has flopped toward the nest of fabric below. In each birth, the mother's body is left to its own devices during the final stages of delivery, in silent testimony to a woman's innate knowledge and power in labor. One baby is seen turning its shoulder as it leaves its mother's body, unaided by midwives or doctors' glimpse of the birthing wisdom that babies, too, possess. None of the parents are interviewed, but their faces, tears, and gestures tell us that birth can be as rapturous as it is laborious.”

This was my first time seeing this movie. The simplicity this film was really a wonderful way, if not slightly shocking because most people are not accustomed to seeing births that are this hands off, to start the film festival. The calmness of the women and gentle way in which the babies were born really set the stage for beginning to naturalize our concepts of birth.

by Abby Epstein (83 mins, USA)

”Birth is a miracle, a rite of passage, a natural part of life. But birth is also big business. Compelled to explore the subject after the delivery of her first child, actress Ricki Lake recruits filmmaker Abby Epstein to question the way American women have babies. Epstein gains access to several pregnant New York City women as they weigh their options. Some of these women are or will become clients of Cara Muhlhahn, a charismatic midwife who, between birth events, shares both memories and footage of her own birth experience. Footage of women having babies punctuates THE BUSINESS OF BEING BORN. Each experience is unique; all are equally beautiful and equally surprising. Giving birth is clearly the most physically challenging event these women have ever gone through, but it is also the most emotionally rewarding. Along the way, Epstein conducts interviews with a number of obstetricians, experts and advocates about the history, culture and economics of childbirth. The film's fundamental question: should most births be viewed as a natural life process, or should every delivery be treated as a potential medical emergency? As Epstein uncovers some surprising answers, her own pregnancy adds a very personal dimension to THE BUSINESS OF BEING BORN, a must-see movie for anyone even thinking about having a baby.”

The audience reacted in many different ways to this film. These reactions coupled with this film really demonstrated how much the unifying essence of birth has been paved over by the heated and complex politics/economics of how we are born. It was interesting to compare this film to the way most wealthy Indians give birth. One doctor mentioned that if we were shocked by the cesarean rates of New York we should come to his hospital where cesarean rates commonly exceed 90%! This doctor also shared that he is pressured by the hospital to use their “facilities”, meaning operating room - he has received letters demanding an increase in his caesarean rate! In India, no formal data collection on medical intervention is being done and the risk of malpractice and or investigation is nonexistent. These hospitals are more interested in delivering your pockets than delivering your baby. Unfortunately, until something changes unnecessary medical interventions and caesareans will continue to climb under a cloak of little medical transparency. Sadly, being born is truly a business here in India.

We showed three films on Wednesday the 30th:

by Naoli Vinaver (10 mins, Mexico)

“This film is the birth of the film maker's third daughter's home waterbirth, lived and narrated as a family-centered event.”

I love this film more every time I watch it! The film begins with a beautiful shot of the lush green beauty of Xalapa, Mexico. Before the birth, Naoli shares how her passion for midwifery and is shown making bread with one of her boys and pulling beets with her husband, who is a sculptor. Because of this background on her family and home, I felt that this film was an extremely intimate experience even for an outsider. My favorite part is when Naoli said that when she was walking toward her husband, she didn’t feel pain, rather the contractions felt like “love bursting out.” It certainly did look like love bursting out when she calmly delivered her baby and celebrated after with her entire family in the tub!

by Sameera Jain (60 mins, India)

“Born at Home observes indigenous birth practices and practitioners in parts of
India (rural Rajasthan, Bihar, and the urban working class area of Jahangirpuri in
Delhi). Poised between social reality and the eternal mystery of childbearing, the film poses a critical question. When dais or midwives are known to handle about 50% of births in India, why does the state not recognise the inherited and low-cost skills of the almost one million traditional practitioners in the country? Natural birth clinics and home births are increasing in numbers in the west, but our brand of progress continues to undermine our vast and centuries-old knowledge base. There are innumerable instances where modernity has only served to reinforce prejudices. The film presents an intricate delineation of the figure of the dai who is almost always a low-caste, poor woman. Unlike medical science to whose life-saving power the best of dais pay homage, indigenous birth methods are holistic, conceiving of childbirth not as pathology but continuation of organic life. Gender and class issues are juxtaposed with images of the post-partum massage, the ritual bath, and finally the miracle of an actual birth. Mind-body, earth-cosmos become one unified whole when, negotiating the nether world of pain and labour, a new life thrusts it way up into the sun. The dai's hands are experienced and empathetic as she guides the process.”

I love this film because it was a rare and intimate peek into the world of the Dai and childbirth in India, a country where such things are usually not open to outsiders! The film really corrected the common notion of Dai being crude, backward practitioners, yet commented that just like biomedicine, the world of the Dai contains the best and worst practices. After watching this film, everyone in the audience was really questioning why the valuable skills of the Dai are not being supported by the Indian government! Government endorsement of Dai is a very complex issue – the government fails to craft programs that consider the enthnomedical knowledge of Dai, instead they lay down senseless ultimatums like immediate cord cutting, something many Dais believe to be extremely dangerous for the baby. Although, since the Dais I work with practice in a city where birth is becoming increasingly medicalized, they feel it’s important to be able to distinguish between damaging interventions and those which may save a women's life - to defend and preserve their traditions, they need a basic understanding of the medical world that threatens them. Providing them with this basic understand is impossible if government programs do not endorse Dai’s valuable skills with programs that fit their learning styles and culture.

Additionally, one of my favorite things about watching Born at Home was for those 60 minutes, we were completely on Bhimla’s turf, something that never ever happens in India! Since one of the objectives of the film festival was to portray the naturalness and beauty of birth, it was a great honor have had her there to represent a legacy of women who have guided countless babies into the world, sans technology, assisted by age-old insights, love, and trust.


It is so important for the Dai to feel that they are included in our natural birth movement, as they face so much prejudice from "Western" face of maternity care we sometimes appear to represent. So much of the time I spend with the Dai revolves around validation and empowerment in the face of degradation.

The last film was a water birth conducted locally with Delhi’s only other doula, Divya Deswal. Since this film, about 6 more water births taken place at Phoenix Hospital in Delhi! Watching this beautiful birth gave me hope that things can and are slowly changing.

After the films, I was able to meet Paige Trabulsi, an amazing doula who has been working in Bangalore and started the Bangalore Birth Nework. I’ve posted a link to her blog under the “Blogs I like” section on this page!

Thanks to everyone that came last night! I hope this has began to clear the way for further birth centered advocacy, education and celebration!


Mira Sadgopal said...

Grace, I'm glad to have read your blog (for the first time) to know about the films on the first day of the 'birth' film festival which I missed. I look forward to following your own experiences with dais in Delhi. I was impressed by your introduction of the visiting dai. Love, Mira

Paige Trabulsi said...

congratulations on a *most* successful childbirth film festival! it was so great spending time with you and hearing about the amazing work you've done in delhi. lot of love.

Prlylla said...


I'm so happy to find your blog. It was so informative. In three days I'll be in Delhi so now I could say that I'm not going without a clue :D.

Thanks a lot.

Prlylla said...


I'm so happy to find your blog. It was so informative. In three days I'll be in Delhi so now I could say that I'm not going without a clue :D.

Thanks a lot.

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