I know. You’d think I’d post something about the major doc happenings this week: POV airing Food, Inc. (Wednesday, April 21 at 9:00 pm – check local listings) and the kick-off of the Tribeca Film Fest. I might get to those later, but for now I can’t help it — I’ve got an itch and I’ve got to scratch it. And besides, this is going to be about dealing with the unexpected, so at least I’m being consistent.
Last week, I saw The Business of Being Born, the 2008 documentary about how the birthing industry in America is screwed up because expectant mothers are hooked on drugs when they go to the hospital, pushed toward getting c-sections and taught to shun the notion of home births (which are quite popular in Europe). It’s a good film — well-executed by director Abby Epstein, with good pacing, interesting interview subjects and a compelling cause. The film doesn’t even try to hide that it is a “cause” movie with a capital C: Epstein has a point of view, so much so that the film veers toward propaganda. But, hey, when you believe the message (as I mostly do), then you’re happy to see the word get out.
Epstein slowly builds her case as she covers the subject, talking to midwives and moms and doctors, while she herself progresses toward giving birth to her first child. The film is clearly on the trajectory of showing Epstein’s own triumphantly wonderful home birth. But then, the unexpected happens. Epstein develops complications when she has a premature birth; her midwife rushes her to a hospital where Epstein gets a c-section.
It’s a WTF? moment, if there ever was one in a documentary film. I’m thinking, “I didn’t see this coming,” and I know that Epstein and her team must have been totally blindsided by this sudden encroachment of reality’s unpredictable circumstances. How they handle it is really the test of the film, and I have to say, I was a little disappointed.
Throughout the film, Epstein underlines the notion that the vast majority of home births are fine, and that only a slim minority necessitate a doctor and hospital. But, when that minority includes her so vividly, she doesn’t really take the issue head on. She suggests she’s a little disappointed that things turned out this way, but doesn’t acknowledge that, wow, this really changes the thrust of the film. It might not change the overall thesis, but it certainly puts a new spin on the narrative. The whole time, the doc was heading in one direction, and it ends, well, way off somewhere else, in the realm of life’s unpredictable absurdities — but Epstein doesn’t seize the moment and acknowledge it as she could have.
I don’t know how Epstein edited the film. It seemed to me that she had been editing it at the same time that she was shooting, going in one direction, and that when the early birth happened, she sort of slapped on an ending. I’d like to ask her.
I can’t think of another documentary that takes such an abrupt turn. It made me think of how so many filmmakers start out making a particular movie, only to find that their research pointed them in a new direction. Errol Morris‘ Thin Blue Line went from being a film about a psychiatrist who was a murder expert to being about a specific case of injustice. Andrew Jarecki‘s Capturing the Friedmans was originally about party clowns, but became an epic tale of a family with a dark secret.
But those changes happened off-camera. In The Business of Being Born, the shift happens at the climactic moment — on screen.
Nonfiction filmmaking has many distinct advantages over fiction, and one of them is that life can take such unexpected turns. When it does, a filmmaker should revel in that moment, and use it to his or her advantage. I wish I could think of a film where this really happens. Can you?
By the way, Epstein has a lively website, which you can check out at http://www.mybestbirth.com/.