Economist and PBS Kick Off New Documentary Project With Chicago Film

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A new documentary film by Chicago's Dawn Shapiro concludes with a startling admission. Shapiro’s setting is rural Nigeria and her subject childbirth, and just before the credits roll we are told:

While documenting these stories, the filmmakers worked in unison with families and healthcare workers to accurately portray pregnancy and childbirth.

Several times we affected outcomes by contributing resources for transportation, cell phones and pharmaceuticals.

In the case of Sakina Maka, her husband Mohammed, an Arabic teacher, was unable to procure funding for blood after hours of searching. We gave Mohammed the 10,000 Naira [$68] needed to buy the blood.

Sakina Maka delivered twins. The second twin, the boy, died. Shapiro’s film, The Edge of Joy, tells us 36,000 Nigerian women a year die giving birth, and hemorrhaging is a leading cause. Because Shapiro and the other three women in her film crew decided against strict objectivity, the twins’ mother survived. You be the judge.

“At some point, your role as a journalist — your role as a documentary filmmaker — gets put aside and you have to put your human hat on,” says Shapiro. “But people have to know that.” People who watch her 43-minute film will wonder if her presence influenced the events she was recording in ways that transcended financial help. She thinks so. The boy twin might have lived if the oxygen machine hadn’t been broken, but the doctors and midwives lavished attention on him. “A ton of attention was paid to that infant,” Shapiro says, “and man, 30 or 40 infants were being born in that ward, many with similar problems. I ask myself, when we talk about my presence there and you watch the film, do you think all those measures would have been taken?”

It's not actually an important question. Her film tells a story of highly competent Nigerian doctors and midwives doing the best they can despite unreliable equipment, a blood supply that requires the families of patients to buy their own, religious and cultural barriers to family planning, and a fatalism expressed in a Hausa saying that begins the documentary: “Birth is the medicine for death.”

And her film reports a measure of progress. A maternity blood bank is created. Family planning makes inroads. A new piece of equipment is introduced by way of NASA, an antishock garment that fights hemorrhaging by driving blood from the limbs to vital organs. The Edge of Joy reports that death rates drop.

With $200,000 from the MacArthur Foundation, Shapiro and her crew filmed The Edge of Joy over a seven-month period in 2009. She’s screening it in film festivals, and Thursday evening an eight-minute excerpt will be shown nationally on the PBS NewsHour. The excerpt will then be accessible on the websites of the NewsHour and the Economist Film Project.

If you’re old enough, you might remember a time when American magazines such as Time and Newsweek could be mentioned in the same breath as Britain’s Economist. As the former wither toward oblivion on the waiting room tables of dentists across America, the Economist cockily unpacks the world every week, and the idea behind its film project is to link with documentarians of a kindred spirit. “For years the Economist has inspired new thinking by telling stories from around the world. Now we want to hear yours,” asserts the project’s website. “The project will feature films whose new ideas, perspectives, and insights not only help make sense of the world, but also take a stand and provoke debate. The Economist and PBS NewsHour will jointly curate the project to choose films by filmmakers who share these goals.”

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