Watching a birth—whether live or filmed, but let's just say filmed for the purposes of this review—is a watershed moment in life. Birth is the most dramatic of commonplaces. It never happens in sleep, like death. It never loses its power, even if you see birth after birth. This is not to say that it's glorious and mothers are magical angels and life is beautiful amen namaste. Birth is an epically complicated subject, and Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives, a new documentary, mostly does justice to it.
Gaskin is the world's most famous midwife. She was a caravanning hippie who returned to San Francisco to find Altamont rather than the Summer of Love she'd left behind. So the Gaskins and their caravan decided to go to Tennessee and set up a farm commune. The women had already been helping each other deliver their babies on the road. Now they would do it at the Farm, which opened in 1971 and is still going strong, training new midwives and delivering new babies.
Gaskin and her fellow midwives are likable people—the best kind of eccentrics: no-nonsense ones—with none seeming to need the attention of a camera whatsoever. Directors Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore do a good job interweaving new and historical footage of the founding midwives' halcyon days. There are so many birthing scenes that they lose the ooh-a-naked-lady effect, a great public service in itself. (Idea: Everyone should look at a naked lady doing something powerful and nonsexual five times a day. Then let's see how many women get into Congress.)
Gaskin is nondogmatic but wants two things: to lower the C-section rate, and to spread the word about safe breech delivery. We see a breech delivery, butt-first, in the film.
What we don't see much of are the Farm's struggles and conflicts. Also, the final birthing scene is incredible—the woman gives birth by candlelight, in a tub, with not an iota of assistance from any of the midwives—but I'd hate for it to make women think they're doing something wrong if it doesn't go like this. Gaskin's philosophy is simple: relax. But in the force field of childbirth, that's got to be the hardest thing of all to do.