With her latest film, The Motherhood Archives (2013), Irene Lusztig engages with birth as a cultural phenomenon, a topic that sparks passionate beliefs, yet is rarely discussed critically or publicly. Upsetting the equilibrium of assumptions and silence that surrounds childbirth, her film challenges its audience to analyze the act of giving birth as ideologically mediated rather than a straightforward or natural process of reproduction. The result of exhaustive research into cinematic representations of labor, The Motherhood Archives composes a fractured history of pregnancy and delivery as they have existed for institutions of public health, medical training, and popular culture. It moves from the anesthetized horrors of the twilight sleep period to a contemporary milieu where expectant mothers curate their ideal birthing experience for a price, and from the population-wide interventions of the eugenics movement to the neo-Pavlovian origins of the Lamaze technique in the USSR. Each of these approaches is distinct in how it visualizes the pregnant mother’s body, which is sometimes animated as a series of feedback loops with hotspots of sensory intensity, at other times pictured as a bulk of flesh to be massaged, injected, and manipulated.
I sat down with Irene to discuss the film and the troubling resistance it often encounters, even within the alternative space of experimental film.
Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa (Rail): Can you discuss your use of the scientific material and the visual culture of the public health films, educational films, science films, training films in The Motherhood Archives? We see such a wide variety of attempts to visualize women’s bodies. At certain points these images become so bizarre and surreal.
Irene Lusztig: One of my favorite examples is in a 1938 movie called Birth of a Baby, which I use a couple of chunks from in my film. It was a film that was produced by the American College of Obstetricians for the public and is a kind of docudrama. It follows a pretty typical script for a childbirth education film, showing a woman through her pregnancy until birth and the baby coming out at the end. Because it’s a docudrama it’s mostly fictionalized and scripted and an actress plays the birthing woman. But in the actual birth scene—and this was the reason this film was banned for many years after it was made—it shows a live vaginal birth. The film intercuts between the face and then the vaginal birth below the waist. The face was this actress wearing pin curls and lipstick who is moaning theatrically, and then the birth shots are shot in the New York Langan Hospital. It’s a completely different woman’s vagina pushing the baby out, but the filmmakers are somehow trying to convince us that they’re occurring simultaneously in the same space.
Rail: The magic of cinema. [Laughter.]
Lusztig: Yeah! But it’s so interesting, this irreconcilability between the birthing face that emotes and the birthing body that does this other thing that’s hard to look at or think about. It raises all these interesting issues like: What is the difference between the birthing face and the birthing body, and which films will show what. I had to think a lot about whether the footage I used was too gross or too upsetting to look at, and how much of the gross stuff to include. People gasp—there’s one shot of a baby coming out with forceps and every time I show the film, someone gasps. I was very circumspect about how many of those images to include in the film. I think you only see two shots of an actual baby being born. But I have hours and hours of medical-training footage where you never see a woman’s face at all, where it’s just hands doing things to bodies below the waist: sometimes a C-section or bloody stitching or sewing or suturing. There’s a whole category of films for doctors where there’s no human presence of a woman at all. And there’s also entire children’s films where you in fact never see an actual birth or blood or the body that gives birth, which only include the emotive faces of the woman who’s going through this experience.
Rail: Can you discuss the voiceover? It seems to be a character, if we can call it a character, who is made up of many heterogeneous parts. Sometimes citing the historical research material, and sometimes critically commenting upon it. Can you talk about the creation or evolution of this character?
Lusztig: I probably thought harder about voice than any other aspect of the project and I guess there are a few things to say about it. One is the decision to get rid of the first-person singular, which in earlier cuts I used in places, and which I often think can be a really powerful way of bringing people into a topic, or helping people think with you about something. It can be a way of making a particular thing universal, but counter-intuitively with this project it felt like it was doing the opposite thing. It was allowing people not to engage with the film and to say, “Good, this is about you, therefore it’s not about me.” I had to really convince people to engage with this topic, to think critically about a thing that’s hard for people to think critically about. I had to consider what was the right voice that can bring people along.
There’s a “we” voice that most of the voiceover is written in. It’s this big inclusive first-person-plural voice. I was interested in the weirdness and the messiness of using the “we.” On one level it’s very inclusive: “we” being all women, or a feminist “we,” or a sisterhood “we.” But of course, both in my film and in any conversation about feminism and, perhaps, any conversation about maternity, there are all these really fraught questions of who’s included, and who’s not included. Is a film about maternity only for mothers, or are there any non-mothers included in that category? Who are the women in these educational films? Who’s depicted on screen? Who’s excluded from those depictions? There are a lot of questions about inclusion and non-inclusion, which are really central to all these conversations about representations of women. I’m interested in this messy “we” that seems to include, or maybe isn’t including, or is a problematic set of inclusions. Most of the voiceover is written in this kind “we” voice, and it’s a weird “we.” It’s a “we” that moves through history as a kind of trans-historical voice.
Rail: Right, because the “we” does seem to change, almost from moment to moment. At certain times it’s describing maybe “we” the audience; “we” women at large; “we” upper-middle-class women in the United States. It never quite lands on one spot in particular.
Lusztig: And of course the educational films do that too. There’s a huge set of presumptions in any of the films that are designed to educate a woman in what she’s about to experience, especially when you’re shown an image of a pregnant woman, or several women. They are these kind of fantastical, normative women. They are never teen moms and they’re never moms in their 40s who waited a little too long. They’re the right age, they are always married to a husband, they’re usually white, except after 1969 there’s a sudden explosion of casting tokenism. They’re pretty but not too pretty, thin but not too thin. It’s this very precisely curated woman at the heart of all of these films, who appears to represent all viewers and actually represents nobody.
Rail: I know you had some difficulty getting The Motherhood Archives shown. Can you talk about that process?
Lusztig: I learned a lot through trying to get the film out, especially about the status that maternity and birth have as topics. They now seem to me to be completely exceptional from the bigger, traditional documentary—which is all about other experiences, other places, the Other generally—but for some reason maternity is perceived as this category that could only possibly be interesting to its subject. This is not the case with, for example, documentaries about Nigerian oil-well workers only being interesting to other oil-well workers. I heard this from a lot of programmers when I was first sending the film out: “This film could only be interesting to other mothers and other women,” or “it’s a niche film for an academic feminist audience.” In reality, I think birth is literally one of the only two topics that we all have some sort of relationship with, right? Birth and death. But there’s a perception that it’s an incredibly narrow, niche topic that could only be interesting to other women. There is a long tradition of perceiving work about maternity as sentimental, domestic, narrow, women’s work, again ironically because it’s a topic that all of us, including non-women, have some kind of relationship with.
This is all part of a bigger problem around feminist work. I think it’s not a good moment for feminist work in the documentary world now. In particular the experimental film world is not in a very feminist place. There is a long tradition of masculinist experimental film, but in parallel to that during the ’70s there was a really vibrant dynamic of the women’s film festival circuit, and a feminist film world, that has really evaporated. There’s writing about screenings of Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1965), where all the men tore up the seats with razor blades at Cannes. [Laughs.] I think there was much more energy and excitement and reactions of all kinds, both negative and positive. A really dynamic world of feminist films that people followed, which has largely disappeared. One by one the women’s festivals that used to be really big have stopped existing, for the most part.
Rail: Could you talk about the initial reactions your film was getting from audiences?
Lusztig: At the beginning when I started screening the film, there was a lot of anxiety, especially from women and specifically women who had given birth. This anxiety centered on the tone of the film, which is quite analytical unlike, you know, The Business of Being Born (2007). It’s not a feel-good film about the miracle of childbirth, but rather a critical take on some of that language and discourse, and an attempt to think about that language historically.
Birth is scary. It’s messy and bloody and complicated and sometimes quite medical, depending on the situation. Over the course of the history of managing birth there’s been a very complex dance between the medical and non-medical. That stuff is scary if you think about it and when you come to it with all your critical, analytical facilities. There’s a pretty big cultural apparatus in this country centered on not thinking and not talking about these things. As part of the research for this project I attended an eight-week class in which the instructor didn’t use the word “pain” even once. Instead there were these euphemisms like “adventure,” or “intensity.” There’s a real avoidance of the pain that is at the heart of this experience for many people, which is important but hard to talk about culturally.
Here’s an example: in the film there are three interviews made up of contemporary footage of women speaking about their experience with maternity, and childbirth. Kristen, the first woman who speaks, is fairly negative about her experience giving birth. She seems quite confrontational on screen: she talks about having wanted to have a C-section; wanting to have an epidural; and wanting to really avoid the experience of giving birth. The first time I screened work-in-progress footage she was in the audience, which was mostly an exceptionally well-educated group of academics. People were so angry after the screening, which completely caught Kristen and me off-guard. For weeks afterwards people would come up to Kristen and feel really entitled to ask her questions like: “Why do you even have a child?” “Are you sorry you have a child?” It showed this totally problematic set of assumptions, as if her experience of being pregnant and giving birth might have anything to do with her much longer-term experience of being a mother and raising a child.
I got some of that pushback myself, especially in early cuts of the film when I had a first-person voiceover. People would respond by saying: “Oh, you must have had a really bad experience giving birth. You must be trying to work something out about your own experience.” My response was that this isn’t a film about me. It’s a film about these histories and discourses—and why is it even relevant what my own experience was? I think this is part of why people have a very hard time with this topic. What’s personal? What’s historical? What’s political? Can one make a political film, about this kind of intensely personal space or intense set of experiences? All of this intersected with a moment in film exhibition that feels not especially feminist-friendly, which made it hard to show the film, but also forced me to go out and find other screening spaces. A lot of these have been super interesting non-film spaces that I wouldn’t necessarily have tried to show my work in otherwise. It’s shown in midwifery schools, it’s shown to medical people, it’s shown in childbirth and midwifery conferences. In the end, the film has actually had an interesting circulating history and it’s been exciting to find all these other places for it.
Rail: How have midwives responded to the film?
Lusztig: They’ve been a great audience. Midwives really like the film, which I was kind of anxious about, because while I don’t think it’s a negative film about birth, it’s certainly not a sugarcoated film about the miracle of birth either. They seem to feel comfortable with its messiness. Midwives have seen a lot of birth, and lots of different kinds of birth, and for the most part they seem very appreciative of seeing this whole history in all of its complexity and contradiction. Every time the film screens people laugh in different places, or in different amounts and the way that people respond to the humor in the film is a really good barometer of how comfortable or uncomfortable they feel. The midwife audiences laugh a lot.
The Motherhood Archives played as part of the Flaherty NYC series at Anthology Film Archives on March 31st and is distributed by Women Make Movies.
BENJAMIN SCHULTZ-FIGEROA is a Ph.D. candidate in Film and Digital Media at The University of California, Santa Cruz. His work focuses on the history of film’s use to study animals in laboratory settings.