It’s said you don’t remember the pain of giving birth, just the miracle of this life-changing experience. Whether or not that’s strictly true, you’ve got to give serious credit to any woman who voluntarily chooses to have children and undergo the process… Even if you’ve never been in a delivery room, you’ll remember those Sex Ed videos from school; the films that made you want to hide under the desk and/or join a celibate order at the first possible chance! Of course, these days, there are relatively pain-free alternatives should the situation require it. But in Cyprus, such alternatives are often undertaken far too lightly (C-sections are frequently timetabled for weekdays and daytimes, or to coincide with auspicious dates: 08/08/2018 saw a record number of scheduled births on the island!) and without thought for the consequences.
“The facts are very disturbing, especially in Cyprus where a record number of babies” – nearly 60 per cent, roughly four times the recommended World Health Organisation guideline – “are born via C-section,” explains Danae Stylianou, whose latest release, Birth Days, is an eye-opening exposition on women who are “reclaiming their own bodies and regaining their trust in the maternity care system here on the island.
A renowned documentary filmmaker, with past triumphs including feature documentaries A Haircut Story and Sharing An Island, Danae takes in this rising trend for local C-sections in Birth Days. But her main focus is on the incredible positivity surrounding natural birth…
“I started with the disturbing questions: How do we give birth to our children and what are the reasons behind the increase in C-sections? Has labour become a ‘cascade of intervention’? What are women’s rights at labour and how can a woman gain confidence in her own female nature? But in the process of filming Birth Days, I chose to highlight the positive instead of dwelling on the negative: telling real stories of real women. It’s a very human story, following the transformational journeys of four mothers – including one who is pursuing a natural birth after Caesarean – which will, I hope, empower women everywhere, and make them feel positive about natural birth.”
Using audiovisual material of natural births, interviews with health care professionals, and a series of real events, Birth Days portrays the approach to labour as a unique natural experience. “The film is a vehicle which elevates the role of a woman who bears a child, breaking down the stereotypes surrounding the experience,” explains Danae. “A while back, I became acquainted with a number of very skilled and active midwives, who spent long hours with the labouring women, as well as involving themselves in activism on birth rights and labour. It was eye-opening for me, and the main reason I decided to make a documentary about midwifery and natural birth in Cyprus. Having a baby is a normal physiological process which can, for the majority of women and babies, be accomplished without complication. And yet studies have shown that a substantial proportion of healthy pregnant woman on the island are often subjected to needless and potentially harmful routine interventions. We should of course,” she adds, “be grateful for those C-sections which are life-saving. But in the course of my research it became obvious that these interventions were not being performed solely in emergency situations.”
Highlighting the plight of parents-to-be who are supposed to select their birth attendants and obstetricians based solely on word of mouth, the film goes beyond an examination of the consequences of medicalisation of birth and has become “an ode to the women. Birth Days redefines women’s roles, and underlines their right to be respected at this important time in their life.”
Aiming to promote natural birth, and to show that, given the right circumstances, a woman can have a positive birth experience, the documentary also questions the management of pain and the capability of the human body. “As a filmmaker, I wanted to go deeper, and explore how we, as humans, accept our pains and agonies, overcome our fears and find ways to endure them. To me, childbirth is a raw representation of how we emotionally and physically experience and overcome our pains in life. Also, I wanted to show women that, unfortunately, in modern times, it is not enough to just WANT to give birth naturally. Educating yourself, doing your research and finding trusted health professionals such as an experienced midwife, will allow women to have a sense of control through involvement in decision-making.”
Filmed in a cinema vérité style, Birth Days saw Danae on call 24/7 around her four main characters’ due date. “This was spontaneous labour, filmed in an entirely non-intrusive manner: I don’t ask questions; I just follow what happens.” Documenting “women overcoming their deepest fears through the experience of giving birth naturally,” Danae’s footage is breaking down many a stereotype, such as “Those mainstream media images of women tied to the bed with open legs, screaming! Instead, we learn in Birth Days that a woman can be mobile at labour; she should be moving, exercising, dancing, eating if she wants to; she doesn’t have to lie down as if she is sick! And,” she adds, “we realise that women should be treated with respect and dignity: every birth is unique, but a longer labour shouldn’t automatically be an excuse for medical intervention.”
Describing Birth Days as “empowering, thought-provoking, and raw”, Danae concludes that the experience has been emotional from start to finish. “When creating a documentary like this, you make the decision from the start that it will become one with your life. And through the process, you almost become a facilitator: enabling the coming together of people, the spread of knowledge, and the initiation of a dialogue. I believe,” she concludes, “that the documentary can be used as an educational tool for young adults. And it’s inspired me, personally, to initiate a public discourse on the subject, with the state, decision-makers, health professionals and the parents-to-be. I know that, because of Birth Days, certain people’s lives have changed for the better. It’s an incredible sense of responsibility. But with it comes great joy. In each case, I felt incredibly privileged to have witnessed the birth of a human being: it really is a miracle of nature!”
Birth Days will be shown at the Rialto Theatre in Limassol on October 31 (8.30pm), at the Cine Studio in Nicosia on November 11 (8pm) and November 14 (9pm), and at Theatro Skala in Larnaca on December 3 (8.30pm). For more information and to watch the trailer, visit www.birthdaysdocumentary.com/ or the Facebook page ‘Birth Days – Documentary’ @birthdaysdoc