Judith Helfand’s “A Healthy Baby Girl” is a somewhat self-indulgent but ultimately satisfying documentary about the filmmaker’s investigation of the “miracle drug” that caused her to contract a rare clear-cell cancer. Call it first-person reportage and you won’t be far off the mark. Pic clearly is destined for television markets, but it should also get exposure at film fests and other nonprofit venues.
Helfand learned of her medical condition in 1990, at age 25. At the time, she was working as a researcher for a documentary about diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug once prescribed to women to prevent miscarriages. In 1971, the Food and Drug Administration banned DES after establishing a link between it and vaginal cancer. According to “Healthy Baby Girl,” however, the pharmaceutical companies that sold DES knew as early as the 1940s that it was ineffective — and, worse, possibly carcinogenic for offspring of women who took the drug.
Unfortunately, Helfand’s mother, like thousands of other women between 1947 and 1971, took DES during her pregnancy. Even more unfortunately, Judith Helfand, like thousands of other “DES daughters,” was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to undergo a radical hysterectomy.
“Healthy Baby Girl” is surprisingly funny as it shows Helfand’s initial reaction to her situation: She tries to commandeer the DES documentary, to control the telling of her story. Eventually, she opts to make her own nonfiction pic, using a cousin’s video camera when her film crew runs out of money.
Shot over five years, “Healthy Baby Girl” works up a healthy amount of justifiable outrage over the chicanery of the pharmaceutical companies, and the tight-fistedness of congressional bean counters who fund DES research. Pic visits support-group meetings of DES daughters, and shows how other brave women have dealt with their medical problems.
But “Healthy Baby Girl” is most effective when it does little more than focus on the relationship between the filmmaker and her mother, Florence Helfand. Florence can’t help feeling responsible for Judith’s condition. And while the documentary ultimately reaffirms the strength of the mother-daughter bond, the younger Helfand is honest enough to reveal a few flashes of resentment.
Much of the pic was filmed in and around the Helfand family home in the Long Island town of Merrick. At one point, the filmmaker tries to keep her parents from having new outdoor siding installed, in order to avoid difficulty matching shots in the editing room. Her parents are sympathetic — but they have the siding installed anyway. Fortunately, by that point, Judith Helfand has grown accustomed to coping with events far beyond her control