Warm, spirited and occasionally slathered in goo, “Birth Story” is a celebratory tribute to the endangered art of midwifery and its most influential practitioner, Ina May Gaskin. A disarming example of documentary filmmaking that stakes out an opinion with plain-spoken, commonsensical wisdom, this insightful effort from helmers Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore doubles as a defense of natural childbirth and an affectionate look back at the movement’s ’70s countercultural roots. It also features intensely graphic, matter-of-fact footage of women in labor that will likely rep the Los Angeles fest audience award-winner’s biggest talking point in limited theatrical and home-format exposure.
At once a pillar of strength and a kindly, ever-nurturing presence at age 72, Gaskin reflects on her four-plus decades spent delivering babies and training other women to do the same. She also serves as the viewer’s chief guide to the Farm, a rural Tennessee commune she founded in 1971 with her husband, Stephen, and others who shared their devotion to the values of simple living, vegetarianism and natural childbirth.
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The commune’s early development, glancingly depicted in black-and-white photographs, could have furnished a documentary in itself, but Lamm (“Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox”) and actress-turned-helmer Wigmore opt to focus on the stories shared by the many midwives and mothers who have passed through the Farm’s doors. Collectively these women testify to the virtues of giving birth the old-fashioned way, an experience they claim produces agony and ecstasy in equal measure, unmediated by the drugs and C-sections that obstetricians, the film argues, are generally too quick to prescribe.
This perspective is soon illustrated in the most direct manner imaginable, as numerous exceedingly intimate videoclips from the Farm’s archives show women giving birth under the optimal circumstances laid out in Gaskin’s oft-referenced book, “Spiritual Midwifery.” Set up in cozy, earthy cottages rather than sterile maternity wards, typically with their spouses as well as midwives present, the women respond to each contraction with a flurry of wails that seem at once incantatory, prayerful and borderline orgasmic. The camera spares us nothing with its up-close, highly suspenseful glimpses of the entire process, from crowning to delivery; when it’s finally over, in a climactic release of fluid, viewers may be unsure whether to recoil or burst into applause.
As depicted here, natural birth doesn’t look easy, but it does look oddly essential. While the field of obstetrics comes in for some criticism, Gaskin and her spiritual sisters aren’t interested in dismissing modern medicine so much as gently correcting some of its oversights, namely the inference that women’s bodies aren’t up to the task and require major surgery in order to correct their inherent defects.
Gaskin speaks from personal experience, flashing back to the horror of having her first child delivered with a pair of forceps, a practice that has declined over the past few decades. More often than not, however, this mother of midwifery is a font of good humor, earning laughs when she wryly informs a roomful of listeners that women are as anatomically elastic as men are, and adhering to the eminently sensible notion that kindness, a gentle touch and a reassuring manner are all the instruments a midwife really needs.
Tech package is fine. Childbirth footage looks degraded from age, but this only enhances its already unassailable authenticity.