How did you secure partnerships with the hospitals featured in the film?

Midwife Whitney Pinger, who is featured in the film, suggested that we contact the American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM). ACNM advised us on top models and we were able to secure cooperation of Baystate Medical Center and Sutter Davis Hospital. Our academic advisor, Professor Adrea Lawrence, was a patient at Physician and Midwives Collaborative Practice in Alexandria and made the introductions for us. We then began an extensive permissions process with the hospitals and practices.

How long were you in production?

A little over two years.

Why did you choose “The Mama Sherpas" as the title?

The genesis for the move title came on my first day of filming in August, 2011.  The midwife explained to an expecting mama that midwives "acted like sherpas to guide the women through the birthing process." It was an incredible moment and although it didn't end up in the final version of the film, it stuck with me.  At that very moment, we began playing with the title of The Mama Sherpas and later did an audience survey to test the name as well as discussing it with ACNM's national office and local midwives.  The name resonated as it reflected the spirit of how midwives practice.  My concern as a filmmaker is that it was a bit obscure OR the intentionality could be misunderstood as something with negative connotations.  So, I waited to finalize the title until right before we completed the film...literally.  We went through many, many discussions.  Finally, days before "picture lock" I spent an afternoon meditating on it.  As I sat in my office, with my head down for a bit, it finally came to me that this had to be the title of the film.  Like Sherpas guiding hikers to Mount Everest, midwives don't take the glory, they're the guides, this is their life's work and it's always about mama and baby.   Without getting too political,  I recognize that the Sherpa people have been exploited time and time again.  And, choosing to use the word "sherpa" which is also a noun to mean "expert and guide" was always meant with the utmost respect, with the meaning to guide women to a safe delivery of their baby.  Midwives put the woman and baby first, never in it for the glory, it's their calling. And with that nod of respect, we found The Mama Sherpas.

What was the most challenging shoot?

The shooting process was much easier than anticipated. The hospitals and practices were very supportive and provided us pretty much unfettered access. The main challenge was at Baystate and Sutter Davis, we would be flying in for a few days at a time monthly or bimonthly and as you cannot predict labor, we were never sure whether we would be successful in what we were able to film. We definitely made several trips where we’d arrive at the hospital after what had been an extremely busy period only for us to experience days without births. Some care providers joked they appreciated my arrival because it meant it would be quiet. We stuck with filming long enough though that this was not always the case. Keep in mind, that in California and Massachusetts we didn’t have mamas lined up ahead of time so we would ask when they came in already in labor, not the optimal time to ask, “oh and can we film your interactions with midwives.” Despite that possible obstacle, we ended up filming some pretty amazing families and birth stories.

How did the editing process help the film come together?

The biggest challenge is telling a story that will be as accessible as possible to a wide audience. There is an inherent tendency to want to edit to the audience of the mothers and care providers who are already in the know, rather than editing so the film is accessible to any woman and partner who is thinking about becoming pregnant or pregnant and may have not even heard of the concept of midwives working in hospitals. At the same time, we want to make sure that we avoid short-handing anything; it’s a careful tightrope act to balance the two for sure.

Was there something that you learned that you weren’t expecting to encounter?

The expansive role that midwives play in women’s lives. They do so much more than catch babies, that’s a big part and at the same time a small part of what they do. Many are trained as primary care providers and work on the front lines of poverty. They care for women from puberty past menopause and often advise women beyond health care and are counselors to the patients they serve. I always left a film shoot inspired and hopeful because midwives were in the world.

If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?

I don’t think we’d do anything differently. Well, to be honest, the biggest obstacle to production is funding. We made this film on an absolute shoe-string. If we had more funding, we would have breathing room and certainly more money for post- production and outreach, which we still may need to fundraise for, but we were very blessed to have the care providers, mamas, and families trust us. No amount of funding would have helped us gain the intimacy that we had to tell their stories.

What do all the different terms mean?

  • CERTIFIED NURSE-MIDWIFE (CNM): An individual trained and licensed in both nursing and midwifery. Nurse-midwives possess at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution of higher education and are certified by the American College of Nurse-Midwives.
  • CERTIFIED MIDWIFE (CM): An individual trained and certified in midwifery. Certified midwives possess at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution of higher education and are certified by the American College of Nurse-Midwives.
  • CERTIFIED PROFESSIONAL MIDWIFE (CPM): An individual trained in midwifery who meets practice standards of the North American Registry of Midwives.
  • DIRECT-ENTRY MIDWIFE (DEM): An independent individual trained in midwifery through a variety of sources that can include: self-study, apprenticeship, a midwifery school, or a college/university program.
  • LAY MIDWIFE: An individual who is not certified or licensed as a midwife but has been trained informally through self-study or apprenticeship.