I ’m not necessarily the best person to review “Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives,” a film to be screened at Barking Legs Theater on Feb. 8. I was present for my son’s birth, which happened in a hospital surrounded by beeping machines and a staff who seemed to vanish whenever we needed them.
As a second-hand observer of such an awesome event, I can understand where Ina May is coming from when she described the clinical and impersonal nature of her first birthing experience. I was my wife’s only source of support during her 12-hour labor and I can attest that it was lonely and terrifying—and all I had to do was stand next to her.
Her experience was nothing at all like those seen in “Birth Story,” where the women are surrounded by family and friends, all encouraging and supporting them through the process. For those scenes alone, anyone interested in the subject matter will find the film engaging and uplifting. But even if you don’t have children, or haven’t seen childbirth, the film has a secondary tale, the story of the Farm, an “intentional community” in Summerville that at one point boasted 1,000 residents, all living together, growing food, raising children and experience their youth through hippie ideals of the 1960s and ’70s.
“Birth Story” is an effective documentary in that it shows its subject matter through the lens of the people involved. Poor filmmakers insert themselves into the narrative, good filmmakers let their narrative unfold through the words of their subjects.
Ina May met her husband in the heyday of the hippie commune and spent several years travelling by bus around the country as her husband, counterculture icon Stephen Gaskin, spoke to various groups. Her interest in childbirth grew out of necessity—the busses travelled with several pregnant women who sometimes went into labor. Rather than taking them to a hospital, Ina May and her friends handled the deliveries themselves.
The unbridled youthful optimism (and irresponsibility) of the story is captivating. They were lucky, to be sure, and the possibility of a different outcome doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone. Due to this success, and the overall attitudes of the women involved, Ina May established the Spiritual Midwifery Center at the Farm in 1971, one of the first non-hospital birthing centers in the U.S. It continues operating to this day and Ina May and her midwives have been present at more than 1,200 births.
While the film focuses on Ina May’s success and promotes a certain viewpoint on childbirth, there is a subtext that is as fascinating as the center itself. The film shows, intentionally or unintentionally, a fading lifestyle on the communal farm. Some of the women describe a mass exodus from the Farm as age and responsibility crept up on unsuspecting hippies. Living on top of on one another without much money, running water or electricity loses its luster after a few children come along. We can see this as we watch Stephen Gaskin putter around his house, bent and frail, no longer the tranformative figure he once was.
Ina May is much more vibrant, possibly because out of all of the endeavors found in the Farm’s history, the midwifery center is still going strong and will likely be the legacy of the experiment. While residency at the Farm has dwindled from 1,000 to a few hundred, she has created a childbirth movement that appeals to a great number of people.
I had a few questions about the center that aren’t answered by the film. Questions about insurance, mortality, liability and licensing automatically sprung to my mind. I’m the type of person that wonders about the nuts and bolts. Given that the center has been in existence for so long, these questions are likely not pertinent. More important is the work done and the focus on the needs of women in an oddly male-dominated practice. I don’t know that my wife would be interested in their services were they needed again. I also don’t know that Ina May’s solution is viable for women in the high-risk pool. But for those that are so inclined, I can’t imagine a better way to bring a life into the world.
“Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives”
90 minutes, followed by a panel discussion.
$8 (advance); $10 (door) • 7 p.m. • Friday, Feb. 8