“Black lives matter because black wombs matter!” Shawnee Benton Gibson chanted from the stage during a National Action Network rally in Washington, D.C. in 2020.
In October 2019, her daughter Chamonix Gibson died just two weeks after giving birth. Her death at the age of 30 was another grim symbol of a national crisis: an epidemic of black maternal mortality. The United States is the most dangerous industrial country give birth, with black women die in three times higher than normal white women.
Shortly after Chamonix’s death, her mother, along with her partner Omari Maynard, hosted a celebration of her life, which they named “Aftershock”. In front of him are Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, directors documentary which shares a title with this event, addressed them.
“We didn’t know them, but they were open for us to come and film,” Lee said in an interview this month along with Eizelt. “It really started and shaped the film to what it is now.”
Shortly thereafter, the directors met with Bruce McIntyre, who held a press conference to sound the whistle on maternal deaths and demand accountability for the death of his co-star, 26-year-old Amber Rose Isaac, who died after giving birth in April 2020.
Chamonix and Amber host Aftershock, which not only explores America’s horrific maternal mortality rates among black and brown women, but also follows the women they love as they grapple with new grief and struggle for a solution. Pulling together numerous threads, the filmmakers delve into the US medical system, highlighting the differences between black and brown communities and the gross neglect that has befallen them as a result of centuries of systemic racism.
“Story is everything,” said Eizelt, who directed the 2018 documentary. “93Queen”, about the women’s first responder in Brooklyn. Aftershock is the directorial debut of Lee, who has directed films such as Monster and the Netflix series She Needs It (from her husband Spike Lee).
“It was very important for us to show how we got here,” said Eiselt, “that this crisis did not come out of nowhere. It’s a historical continuum starting in 1619 when black women were devalued and dehumanized. And here we are.”
Movie, broadcast on Huluis a long list of hard facts – on the one hand, caesarean section explosion since the 1970s. The procedure, which is often more profitable for hospitals, leads to significant more maternal deaths than vaginal delivery.
Despite the complex subject matter, the film is not mired in tragedy. Instead, it is underpinned by optimism and hope: in families fighting for change and in efforts on Capitol Hill, especially Black Mumnibus Health Care Act of 2021which would be the largest investment in maternal health in US history.
Here’s what Eizelt and Lee, who have never worked together before, learned about filmmaking and themselves through this project.
Expect the unexpected.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the documentary was filmed in the midst of Covid, with masks worn throughout and plenty of outdoor scenes. At one point, Omari’s teacher is talking to a student through a laptop while taking care of his newborn baby.
“Oh my God, how are we going to do this?” Lee recalled what he said to Eiselt at the beginning of the pandemic. “We really had to adapt,” Lee said, “and be ‘nimble and flexible’. They found ways to turn around, including giving away iPhones to Omari, Shawnee, and Bruce to film themselves at home and “support themselves.”
Plans to film in hospitals in New York and Tulsa, Oklahoma were also challenging. (Oklahoma the maternal mortality rate is twice that of the nation, with black women accounting for a disproportionate proportion of these deaths.)
“Maybe it worked out in the end,” Lee said. “We were on the streets more and we had very little escapes.”
Follow stories wherever they lead.
At the beginning of the film, Bruce and Omari form a deep bond. The couple continues to get together with other black men whose partners have died in the same way, finding comfort and sympathy in each other.
“People are often amazed by the fact that we followed the fathers in this movie,” Lee said. “Being able to see these men raising their children – who clearly love their partners very much, who are driven by love for their partners, for their community, for their families – was really special for us too, something we didn’t expect when we first took on this film.
Black maternal mortality is not just a women’s issue, Lee said: “It’s a family issue. This is a community issue. This is everyone’s problem.”
New perspectives breed growth.
Before Lee and Eiselt met at a conference in 2019 — “I was pregnant, I must have looked crazy,” Eiselt joked — they were strangers. But their shared vision, as well as their passion and perseverance, motivated them to come together.
“You need that passion just to jump with someone, you know? We just thought, “We’re going to do this,” Eiselt said. “We spent so much time talking — like, really talking. I would talk to Tonya more than anyone else in my life.”
“We were real and deep from the start,” Lee said.
As for any difficult moments between the two, according to Eiselt, there were times when Leigh fought back: “She was like, ‘You don’t have that point of view.’ She is a black woman. Me not. “
These conversations prompted Iselt to “think very deeply about everything we’ve done,” she said, especially since they were filming while filming. George Floyd uprisings. “We have lived through so many major world events,” Eizelt said. “We have grown so much because of the circumstances of the world.”
“We would go for it, but in the spirit, how are we going to make it better?” Lee added. “It’s always been about how do we pick up the story?”
Balance of emotions and professionalism.
The intimate nature of the documentary, immersing viewers in the fresh pain of families, makes you want to watch. The filmmakers found it difficult at times to maintain the required distance.
Eizelt, for example, was pregnant for part of the project and then after giving birth. At one point, she interviewed Omari for nine months. “To break it down, I had to really almost go numb, which is not necessarily the best way out,” she said. “But sometimes it seemed to me that if I started going there, I wouldn’t come back.”
According to her, such a balance is not uncommon for documentary filmmakers. “I think you should study psychology in film school.”
But watching Shawnee, Omari and Bruce “turn their pain into strength,” Eiselt said, spurred directors on.
“I can’t lie on the floor crying,” Lee said, “if Shawnee is rushing forward.”