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A Midwife's Tale

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Film Description

"I am at Mrs Howards watching with her son. Went out about day, discovered our saw mill in flames. The men at the fort went over. Found it consumed altogether with some plank & bords. I tarried till evinng. Left James Exceedingly Dangerously ill. My daughter Hannah is 18 years old this day. Mrs Williams here when I came home. Hannah Cool gott Mrs Norths web out at the Loome. Mr Ballard complains of a soar throat this night. He has been to take Mr gardners hors home."

- Martha Ballard, August 1787

Newborn childTo understand eighteenth-century America through a woman's eyes, historian and author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich spent eight years working through Martha Ballard's massive but cryptic diary, full of entries like the one above. "A Midwife's Tale," produced by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt and directed by Richard P. Rogers, chronicles the interwoven stories of two remarkable women: an eighteenth-century midwife and healer and the twentieth-century historian who brought her words to light.

Ulrich unearthed Ballard's diary in the Maine State Library and was immediately captivated. "The story was in the details," says Ulrich. "When I finally was able to connect Martha's work to her world, I could begin to create stories." "A Midwife's Tale" unfolds as a detective story with Ulrich puzzling out fragments from Ballard's diary entries -- always conscious that these eighteenth-century details are overlooked treasures that are rich in the texture of everyday life.

In 1785, America was a rough and chaotic young nation, and Maine its remote northern frontier. That year, at the age of 50, Martha Ballard began the diary that she would keep for the next 27 years, until her death. At a time when fewer than half the women in America were literate, Ballard faithfully recorded the weather, her daily household tasks, her midwifery duties (she delivered close to a thousand babies), her medical practice, and countless incidents that reveal the turmoil of a new nation -- dizzying social change, intense religious conflict, economic boom and bust -- as well as the grim realities of disease, domestic violence, and debtor's prison.

"Without documents," notes Ulrich, "there is no history. And women left very few documents behind." By cataloging diary entries and cross-referencing other documents that mentioned the people Ballard encountered and events she experienced on her constant travels as midwife and healer, Ulrich painstakingly recreated Ballard's world.

For five years, Kahn-Leavitt and Rogers collaborated with Ulrich to craft an innovative film that combines dramatic scenes of Martha Ballard's life with interviews of Ulrich at work as historian, mapping out the relationships and events recorded in the diary and making the connections that reveal the realities of Ballard's life and the complex web of relationships within her community. The stories told on screen are the result of countless hours spent piecing together the layout of Hallowell, Maine, where Ballard lived; the characters inhabiting her daily life; and the status and role of women in this post-revolutionary world.

"'A Midwife's Tale' represents the combined efforts of a talented team of people who struggled with the constraints of filmmaking to tell an important story," says executive producer Margaret Drain. "Faced with the challenge of having no visual images to work with -- no photographs, not even a painted portrait of Martha Ballard -- Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, Richard Rogers, and their collaborators have broken ground on a new style of historical documentary."

"Reaction to this story has been tremendous. I didn't realize it would move people as deeply as it has," says Kahn-Leavitt. "But this is precisely what history should do; it should be provocative. It should take you to a foreign place that nevertheless makes you rethink your own life and times."

Martha Ballard is played by actress Kaiulani Sewall Lee, a direct descendant of the Sewall family of Maine -- people the real Martha Ballard knew, aided in childbirth, and nursed through illness.

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