Celebrate Mother's Day with the Most Cinematic Birth Doc Ever Shot
Enough with the cutesy flowers and saccharine Hallmark cards, Mom rode out serious physical anguish to birth you, and These Are My Hours tells that story from her perspective.
Filmmaker, producer, and male doula Scott Kirschenbaum wanted to tell the ultimate, all-encompassing heroine’s journey: the story of birth. "These hours are the most ferociously full-bodied hours imaginable," said Kirschenbaum to No Film School. And yet, there's been no film to date that had accurately captured that story from the perspective of the mother as subject and not object. "Type ‘one-man movie’ into Google, and you find links for movies like Cast Away, Locke, Burial, and Moon. Type ‘one-woman movie’ into Google, and you get nothing."
Kirschenbaum set out to document a first-person account from a mother that would be cinematic and truly immersive. "I’ve never had a project with so many unknowns and a feeling that we had to be prepared for any environment," said DP Jason Joseffer. "The crew was on call 24-hours a day and our accommodations felt like a firehouse as we were stationed just a few blocks away, waiting primarily to receive the message that 'it’s on.'"
Kirschenbaum and Joseffer sat down with No Film School to talk about the making of the first documentary filmed entirely during a labor, told from the perspective of someone giving birth.
NFS: Why did you decide to make an immersive documentary about Emily Graham's experience of giving birth?
Kirschenbaum: The movie industry has told pretty much every story except the story of birth. It has depicted the glory of the gladiator and superhero countless times, but never the childbearing woman. In movies, birth is never the goal, the culmination of a heroine’s journey; it’s always a secondary element of the storyline. When shown, it is from a distance—a wide shot—diminishing its intimacy and impact; and, crucially, the woman is almost exclusively positioned as the object, not the subject. The doctor or midwife is presented with agency (for delivering the baby), not the mother (for giving birth). The portrayal of a laboring woman, as in “Knocked Up,” is invariably histrionic.
By not telling the “other” story of labor, by not presenting authentic representations of birth, we have stripped it of its monumental significance as civilization’s oldest ritual. Emily’s birth story is meant to serve as an example; not to say one way of giving birth is inherently better than any other, but rather to validate the experience a woman has during labor.
NFS: What did you communicate with your DP, Jason Joseffer, about that feel and style, and what was your production like?
Kirschenbaum: I had no interest in sugarcoating birth’s more raw sides; it is volatile, but it’s also the most intimate of all human experiences. So much of birth is contained on and within the skin. Thus, creating a container between Emily and the viewer felt essential. To accomplish this the film team flowed through Emily’s birth space like a doula would. I wanted the camera crew to always be within eight feet of Emily, but to never disturb her process. Our entire aesthetic was predicated on respectful intimacy. To be with Emily, to be her witness; but to never interfere with her experience.
Shots come primarily from two Epic-M RED Helium cameras: one on a MōVI Motorized Gimbal Stabilizer, for long, elegant shots; and the other on a wheeled pedestal tripod, with an Angenieux Optimo Zoom framing tight shots of Emily’s subtle body movements. Additionally, a camera attached to a ceiling dolly rig provides an overhead perspective of the “labor landscape.”
"...I had no interest in sugarcoating birth’s more raw sides; it is volatile..."
NFS: For Jason, after conversations with Scott about the film, what did you translate into the shooting style?
Joseffer: Scott insisted we make a film that stands in opposition to all of the shaky, poorly-lit amateur birth videos on YouTube. We strategized a plan to fluidly move the camera, light the house for any time of day and find poetic compositions.
Scott challenged me to find an approach that would yield the same flexibility as a handheld camera, but present her labor as a visual poem rooted in intimacy. After months of discussion and brainstorming, I saw that long takes of a fluidly moving camera resonated with Scott. We scouted Emily's house in South Carolina and discussed the challenges and benefits of shooting on a Steadicam. Labor lasts hours and can happen on a moment’s notice. We knew this project would require two Steadicam operators to be available, at minimum, full-time for two weeks.
That’s when I recalled the car scene in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, where a robotic dolly was built into a vehicle. I sketched a low-tech non-robotic version which is essentially a ceiling mounted dolly system allowing X, Y and Z axis movement. We built our rig into the living room as we knew most of the action would likely take place there. That served as our A-Camera. The B-Camera was on a long-range zoom, and the C-Camera was on a MōVI enabling a similar quality of movement anywhere in the house.
"I’ve experimented with Golden Mean on music videos and was excited to explore it in a longer form. The squarer format surrounds a human body and seemed right-on with Scott’s intent to isolate Emily in the frame."
The lighting also needed to be flexible and non-restrictive to Emily or the camera. The challenge was that Emily informed us her labor was likely to occur at night, and that she’d like to keep light levels low. This was concerning as I knew we’d need to ride a delicate line of exposure while not disrupting her birth environment. Emily and Scott both liked the idea of exploring the tones of practical salt lamps that emit an amber-pink glow. And for general illumination, we made the decision to opt for bi-color LED lights, all of which were fully adjustable.
A key point Scott drove home repeatedly was that this movie should feel like a "one-woman show." I’ve long been fascinated by the Golden Mean aspect ratio of 1.618:1, especially how it naturally exists in animal life. It also presents a film well by taking advantage of every pixel a screen has to offer. I’ve experimented with Golden Mean on music videos and was excited to explore it in a longer form. The squarer format surrounds a human body and seemed right-on with Scott’s intent to isolate Emily in the frame. As Scott said over and over, “The film’s 97% Emily and 3% everybody else.” So Emily needed to dominate the frame.
NFS: Scott mentioned the Epic-M RED Heliums. What tools and gear did you use to capture the story, and what was production like for you?
Joseffer: The producers were fantastic about finding gear sponsors, which allowed us to work with some of the finest tools in the industry. We shot on RED Epics outfitted with Angenieux Optimo zooms. The A-Camera lived on a 16-40mm forcing me to be physically close to Emily; while our B-Camera Operator Sinisa Kukic worked the 24-290mm, allowing a range of wides and extreme tights. His camera lived on a PeeWee dolly that offered quick height and placement adjustments.
The cameras wirelessly transmitted video feeds to what we nicknamed the “control room.” This is where our gaffer, Dan Juenemann, controlled the Bi-Color LiteMattes from a makeshift dimmer board. As Emily’s labor progressed, Dan watched the monitors and made color temperature and brightness adjustments. 1st AC Jonathan McDermott pulled focus remotely for A-Cam and C-Cam with the help of our 2nd AC Alejandra Araujo. Sound mixer Seth Lael Peterson also found space for himself in the control room, where he both monitored the microphones he had rigged all over Emily’s house and directed his boom operator.
"...our film was flagged 15 times on Facebook before we even finished post-production..."
NFS: This is the first documentary filmed entirely during labor. In a culture that often shies away from or censors images of women in childbirth, why do you think this film is important and what did you come away with taking such care to capture the story and imagery?
Kirschenbaum: Still pictures from our film were pretty ubiquitously censored on social media–our film was flagged 15 times on Facebook before we even finished post-production–as being sexually suggestive. This all begs the question: When did the sacredness of birth become tantamount to the explicitness of porn? Birth is normal.
Where can your daughter, your sister, girls and young women find authentic representations of birth? Where can we witness the full labor journey of an autonomous, informed, self-directed woman? Certainly not Sex Ed. I have never seen a film get birth–the full expanse of birth–right. So I hope These Are My Hours will give audiences a chance to experience a birth as intimately and holistically as possible.
NFS: Do you both have any advice for other filmmakers based on what you've learned making These Are My Hours?
Kirschenbaum & Joseffer: Ask your Mom (or parent) to tell you your birth story. Tell your kids their birth stories. Spend the next month, from Mother’s Day until June 13th, celebrating birth. It’s pretty much the coolest.
Thank you Scott & Jason!
Experience the film for yourself on the official These Are My Hours Vimeo OD page and don't forget to give your mom some serious mad props.