Directors Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt present an entrancing new documentary about Black women’s maternal and reproductive health in America. This emotionally powerful film presents statistical and informational details about the increasing numbers of deaths of Black women by following the lives and deaths of two women: Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac. Both mothers were healthy and vibrant before entering the hospital to have their children.
The fathers of both children, along with other family members of the women, reveal their indescribably painful experiences of loss while the film expands to tell a number of stories focused on this public health crisis.
“According to the CDC, the maternal mortality rate was significantly higher in 2019 (754 deaths) than 2018 (658 deaths). The increase was statistically significant for non-Hispanic Black women, whose maternal mortality rate was 2.5 times that of non-Hispanic white women and 3.5 times that of Hispanic women. But both knew they would need to go beyond the statistics for their film to be compelling,” reports the Associated Press.
Both directors created ‘Aftershock’ to speak out against this serious epidemic of Black maternal death by offering a clear, potent and realistic view of the issues that are plaguing America today.
Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt spoke to the Amsterdam News about their journeys of making this film.
Amsterdam News: How did you find out about this chilling story?
Tonya Lewis Lee: For me, I can talk about how I found out about the U.S. maternal mortality crisis. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked me to be a spokesperson for an infant mortality raising campaign they were launching here in the United States and I had the pleasure to travel the country. I did know about the health issues that this country had, but I did not know that Black babies were dying at three times the rate of white babies in this country. So, inevitably I found myself immersed in the world of women’s health, specifically the health of Black women and I made a film back then called “Crisis in the Crib” about the mortality issue and began hearing about Black women dying from childbirth complications. I talked to lots of women and inevitably someone would tell me a story about a friend, a cousin, a sister, someone who had died from childbirth complications. So, I’ve been wanting to tell this story but knew I needed a partner because it’s such a big issue. I didn’t want it to be a survey film and so I was really happy to meet Paula and come together with her creatively and make this film.
Paula Eiselt: I came to this story, the topic of maternal health, because of my own experiences in the maternal health system. I had traumatic experiences carrying and birthing my children so I was already tied in and felt a connection to the topic of maternal health. I also made a previous film that dealt with women’s health care called “93Queen” and women, especially marginalized women is something I’m specifically connected to as well. In 2017, I started reading about the U.S. health crisis when a slew of articles came out and when I was reading them, especially the story of Shalon Irving in particular, I realized that what I went through on an individual level is really endemic to Black women and that we are in a national crisis and I really wanted to use my skill set to help shed light and uplift the work that was being done to combat this crisis. So, I was a fellow at Concordia Studio and had a project for development funds and started to research the topic. And very early on in that process, at one of the very first shoots I met Tonya. We bumped into each other and I was thrilled to connect with her and one thing led to the next thing and we decided to birth this baby together. And here we are.
AmNews: What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
Lewis Lee: I think I want people to come away from this film really ready to have a conversation. My hope is that audiences think about what it means to give birth in America and I want people talking about why our birthing outcomes are so bad. We’re all in this together and we need to figure out how to come together. The way to do that is for us to talk about it and get into action.
Eiselt: We want people to feel inspired and empowered to take that action for themselves, their families and for others, and come away with some things that they didn’t know about before about the options that they have and the different routes they can take, and take the initiative to have conversations and do more research and do something about this.
AmNews: Talk about the aesthetic and how you wanted the film to look. Did you want it to be stark and realistic or stylized? What were your ideas on the visual aspect of the film?
Eiselt: We were really clear that our shared vision was a vérité film that followed families and real people and subject collaborators on the ground up and close. We did not want a “talking heads” expert film. We wanted to tell the story of the maternal health crisis, not just the topic of it. We wanted people to feel the consequences of it and also the power that you can have through one of our character’s birth experiences that we had there too. So, that was a very conscious choice that we made.
Lewis Lee: We wanted it to feel real more than anything. We wanted our interviews to look really nice but we wanted the film to feel real. We wanted people to go through the experience as we were experiencing them.
AmNews: How supportive was Sundance of this film? It must have been an exciting experience to be selected.
Lewis Lee: Sundance is a wonderful community. This is my second time at Sundance. As a producer, I brought my film “Monster” in 2018 and Paula and I also financed the film going through Sundance Catalyst so we’ve had a lot of support from Sundance. It is a wonderful community for artists and we really appreciate how respectful they are of our process and of the work. It’s thrilling to have our film premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and Competition. We are excited that there is this virtual element so that there are people who may not otherwise have been able to see the film
Eiselt: Very few organizations [have] artist support like Sundance. They’re so artist-focused and it’s a privilege to be there and have this platform.