Holly Millar pays homage to Brenda Davis’ film Sister, a penetrating examination of maternal mortality in Cambodia, Haiti and Ethiopia
It is difficult to know where to begin to review Brenda Davis’ Sister and that is no criticism of the quality of the production. Quite the contrary: Davis has successfully produced a film that is evocative and illuminating but also unobtrusive and thought provoking. As a result, you come away from watching it feeling as though you have lived a whole other life for those 90 minutes. Several lives… dozens, maybe. Sister follows maternal health workers, pregnant women and mothers in Ethiopia, Cambodia and Haiti. You would need to have a soul of stone to not be touched by the experiences that Brenda has captured.
Madam Bwa, Traditional Birth Attendant, Cap Haitien, Haiti
The opening of the documentary sets the tone for the whole of film, in an auditory sense rather than a visual one. Within the first few minutes, viewers are inducted into the sound of despair: somewhere between a lament, an expression of pain and something else that I cannot adequately describe except to surmise it as visceral and extremely haunting. It is the sound of a woman, Tserie, simultaneously on the brink of birth and death. Even without reading the subtitles (“Oh, my bad luck…I’ll lose my life…Save me, please God save my life…Today, today, today may be my last day…”) the viewer, or the listener, feels Tserie’s torment and misery.
While Sister makes for distressing viewing at times, the seemingly endless statistics from numerous NGOs demonstrate just how frequent and how frighteningly unexceptional Tserie’s circumstances are. One of the most worrying of all of these is that, according to The Raise Initiative, 75% of all maternal deaths across the globe are a result of just five root causes, all of which are cost-effective to treat.
I could list a whole library of upsetting facts and figures. But it would no more illuminate a person to the reality of what these women face than memorising a dictionary could teach a person to speak. That reality is what Brenda and her team bring to the viewer: the sights and sounds of hardship and seemingly endless work that goes into saving as many of these women and children as possible.
I take my family planning choices for granted. I get to choose when and if I want to get pregnant and I get to choose who with. I can enjoy sex with whomever I choose, safe in the knowledge that I’m protected from infections, diseases and unwanted pregnancies. I can remain childfree for the rest of my life without facing the stigma of being labelled barren by my community. If I do fall pregnant, I can choose whether I want to continue that pregnancy or not. Hell, I can even utilise fertility treatments if I want to fall pregnant but can’t.
Admittedly, I’m speaking from my own perspective and, as such, I’m generalising: these choices are not equally accessible to all women in the UK for various cultural and societal reasons. But the infrastructure is there and enhancements to it by way of targeted clinics and community-based projects can build on this. After viewing Sister, it all appears so luxurious as to be labelled extravagant. Of course it isn’t – they’re the choices that women all over the world should have. The disparity between our reality and theirs is almost too vast to comprehend.
Brenda and her team spent 27 weeks across all three locations, encountering Goitom Berhane and Hirity Belay in Ethiopia, Pum Mach in Cambodia and – my personal favourite – Madam Bwa in Haiti. The stories captured in the film highlight just some of the thousands of tragedies and miracles that they live through every day. The highs are extraordinary, but the lows are such that I wonder how they manage to come back the next morning to carry on with their jobs. The answer is of course that if they don’t speak up for and help these women then no one will. And as Goitom says early on: “These are our mothers, these are our sisters.”
In discussing Sister and the issues it covers, there is great potential to paint a terribly gloomy, depressing picture. However, there are moments of real hope and promise to be found in this documentary. The one that has stuck in my mind most prominently is a community meeting chaired by the indomitable Madam Bwa, during which a twenty-two-year-old mother of two stands up and encourages women not to get pregnant so early in their lives and to progress autonomously.
It is a remarkable moment in which this young woman seems to speak out for all the women in such circumstances, not just the ones in the room with her. Asked about this sequence, Brenda said: “We didn’t know exactly what was happening all the time when we were filming, as we didn’t interrupt to get translations during the meeting. It was one of those special moments when reading the translations later we could see that the group was so open and engaging.” The eloquence and passion of this woman is so compelling, a real fist-in-the-air glimpse of empowerment.
Hirity Belay is another beacon of hope. She sets a shining example to the sheltered women in the remote Ethiopian villages that she serves. The women she helps recognise her as a peer; they see what she has achieved for herself in terms of education, career and independence, away from the normative roles of wife and mother. Community outreach, either in groups or on a one to one basis, forms the foundations of the changes these women so desperately need. Thereafter, it is essential that legislation and infrastructure build on this to promote sexual, maternal and neonatal health. The advocates are there, without a doubt, but without governmental support, these lone voices will ultimately remain just that.
I could wax lyrical about Sister for hours on end; It is such an excellent film and pulls no punches. More than that, it is a window into something that I was previously aware of, but was abstract to me, such as in a World Health Organisation report or an article in The Lancet. Brenda brings this reality to us and defies us not to be moved. This film is a bold reminder to the viewer that women and their babies in many countries are suffering and dying on a massive scale. In keeping with this reaching out to viewers, the film’s website gives information on how to contribute to projects in each of the countries and contact details, along with the updates on upcoming screenings and where the film can be rented.
One of the subheadings on the ‘Take Action’ page – Solidarity, Not Charity – really speaks to me. This is not about monthly donations and direct debits that keep the matter private. If our efforts remain entirely individual and separate then we can only ever help a tiny percentage of those affected. Our support depends more on empathy than cash. Community-led efforts will be the foundation of change in these countries and our community-led efforts can further publicise these issues: lectures, blogs and other awareness initiatives can offer the most substantial help to our sisters.
Photos by Alexandra Swati Guild. First picture is of Madam Bwa, traditional birth attendant, Cap Haitien, Haiti; second picture is of family at District Hospital in Tigray, Ethiopia; third picture is of woman and child in Tigray, Ethiopia.