Collaboration makes you stronger, as filmmakers and as people.
Paula Eiselt had embedded with her camera in a Hasidic all-woman EMT unit. Tonya Lewis Lee was showrunner on the She’s Gotta Have It update. And when they met, their strengths multiplied.
Eiselt’s film 93Queen showed women changing their healthcare options from inside their worlds. Lewis Lee’s work writing and producing the Netflix series brought authenticity to Nola’s voice. (She’s married to Spike Lee, and has long made it a priority to get more Black women’s voices on TV.)
When they joined forces, it was to make the Sundance film Aftershock and share the voices of two women in particular: Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac. They were brilliant mothers-to-be whose deaths after childbirth were entirely preventable. Their stories are a frame and a touchstone for the maternal mortality crisis in America. It’s shocking and tragic, yet heartwarming to learn through their voices and their husbands’ call to action.
Lewis Lee and Eiselt spoke with No Film School on the eve of the film’s premiere to talk about making Aftershock.
No Film School: How did the two of you meet and decide to collaborate on this documentary?
Lewis Lee: We were destined to meet and make this film together. I'll say that for sure. We met at a women's conference. I was there speaking on a panel. I’d been thinking about directing and producing a film on maternal mortality, after having produced Crisis in the Crib.
Paula was there filming. I'd say she was there looking for me. I saw her camera. I was like, "Who's that? What's going on?" I went up to her, spoke to her, and here we are.
Eiselt: Once we met, it was a match. We really brought our skillsets together. It's been a very symbiotic collaboration.
Lewis Lee: I think both of us felt, because it’s such a big story to try to tell, that we each really wanted a partner to embark on this journey with. It's big to take on, and having somebody else who you're really working it through with proved to be really helpful.
NFS: After that meeting, when you found each other, what was your process in deciding what and especially who to film?
Eiselt: As Tonya said, we both were interested in this topic on our own for different reasons, and had been working in the space in different ways. When we first met, I was a fellow at Concordia and was able to get development money to start the process. Once we met, we were beginning to find our subject collaborators. I say that because we came in to it from a topic perspective, but it wasn't until we found the people in the film, that the film part of it actually came to be.
On a very basic level, throughout researching the topic and finding out who are the players in the space, we came across a call to action from Shawnee Benton-Gibson, who is the heartbeat of our film, that her daughter had passed. They were putting on an event, a celebratory event to celebrate her daughter's life. And we connected, spoke with Shawnee, and that was really the turning point. Once we found this family, we found Shawnee and Omari Maynard, and then Bruce McIntyre—that’s when it gelled and became a film.
Lewis Lee: In terms of process, we wanted these women to be alive. We wanted to tell a story through people's lived experience, because that's how people feel and learn about an issue, as opposed to just the statistics. Especially when you're talking about a film about Black women and maternal mortality, often the narrative is about what these women were not. The narrative is that they don't take care of themselves, they're not healthy, they're single women, they're out here by themselves. It was really important for us, as filmmakers, to first of all make sure that these women who passed away, to make sure people really understood that these are real people who really lived.
And then it's about really understanding who their families are. One of the things that I have found for myself, just to going through the process of making the film, is that I get to know these women through their families. It's clear to me who these women were because of who these men are. We were really making decisions to make sure that these women who we lost, that their voices came through the film. And I feel like we were able to accomplish that.
NFS: I know that on 93Queen, Paula, you did the bulk of the cinematography yourself. And I know Tonya mentioned you were filming the day you met. Did you shoot a lot of this film? How did the cinematography work?
Eiselt: I didn't do the cinematography for this film, thank God. It was very, very nice to work with our incredible cinematographers, Jenni Morello, Kerwin DeVonish, and Michael Crommett. And there's so much to say because a pandemic happened shortly after we started, so we had to strategize how to actually film safely, and capture our story. The bulk of the story was filmed during the pandemic. So, that's a huge part of it, how we pivoted to do that.
But on a story level, it was really grounding ourselves within the journeys of Shawnee, Omari, and then Bruce. When Amber passed, Omari reached out to us and said, "There's a new father in this horrible club." And then we approached Bruce and then followed his process. Their journeys were the guiding light of what we would film.
Lewis Lee: We each brought what we had to the table. I will say that in co-directing this film, I think that we really did everything together. It wasn't like she took care of this shoot and I took care of something else. We got in there and we both hit everything.
Sure, there were some shoots that Paula wasn't available, I was available. And some I wasn't available, Paula was available. But when it came down to it, this was a true collaboration. We did everything together, leaning on our strengths, and allowing the one who had the strength where the other had a weakness to support each other in that.
NFS: Did you know how you were going into each shoot, what you wanted to capture?
Eiselt: First, we built very deep relationships with our subject collaborators. So, there's a constant community of, "What are you up to? What are you guys planning?" We would have check-ins with them constantly. At least every week, we had WhatsApp groups. We were very, very close, which you had to be, on so many levels, but especially when dealing with such an incredible loss and the sensitivity towards the grieving process.
That open line of communication allowed us to know what was going on. And then, they would tell us like, "This is coming up." And Tonya and I would say, "Okay, does this move the story forward?" If yes, we would shoot it. Now, with the pandemic, the opportunity to have our cameras in there became much, much less. Once we were able to shoot safely, we did try to take advantage of each shoot, because we didn't know when we'd be able to shoot again.
Lewis Lee: The film itself is a balance of information and experience. And so, there's a vast range of things in ways that we shot. Going into the hospitals, hoping to really follow and understand what the process is like when a woman checks in at a hospital and how she is ushered through.
Some of that we were able to capture, but not put in the film, unfortunately. But some of it, we were able to put into the film. And then, as Paula was alluding to, we were hoping to get the true, authentic experience of grieving, and at the same time, the inspiration of action. Our subject collaborators are amazing people. I've learned so much from them. We wanted to capture their spirit.
NFS: Having both journeyed through the filmmaking space and tackled stories uplifting women’s voices, as female filmmakers, what was the moment where you felt like you'd reached the point of "filmmaker"? What would be your advice for filmmakers on getting to that point?
Lewis Lee: When's the moment one calls themselves a filmmaker? This is my second film at Sundance. First as a director, second as a producer. So, I think I'm a filmmaker. I'm a storyteller, I'm a social justice warrior. And I know that the best way to change hearts and minds and move culture is through telling stories, whether it be on paper or digitally or on film. So, that's what I am.
Eiselt: I don't know, the day you become a filmmaker, if that's like an ordained thing. But I guess for me it was finishing a film. Not to say that work that I have done before I finished my first film wasn't filmmaking, because it was. But I think seeing the whole process through for me, for my own validation.
It always feels like there needs to be another step that we need to take to get the validation, to get the respect that we deserve as any male filmmaker. And I would say, my advice to give, is just be your full self. Don't shrink yourself under any circumstances. And don't worry about being liked.
People don't have to like you. I spent a lot of my time wanting to be liked, and really that is just a hurdle that pulls you back, and it doesn’t matter. You just have to be you.