The Sundance documentary “Aftershock” zeroes in on an issue that until recently had gotten little attention — disparities in America’s maternal health care system.
The film is directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, and follows two bereaved fathers who lost their partners as a result of preventable childbirth complications.
In 2019, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 44 deaths per 100,000 live births or 2.5 times the rate for white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lewis Lee told Sharon Waxman at TheWrap’s Sundance Studio how she first became aware of the disproportionate numbers of preventable deaths of Black mothers and babies.
“Way back in 2007, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked me to be the spokesperson for their infant mortality awareness raising campaign called ‘A Healthy Baby Begins With You,'” she said . “That campaign allowed me to travel the country to talk about infant health. At the time, I didn’t know infant mortality was an issue in the United States. I didn’t know that Black babies died in three to four times the rate that white babies do.”
Lewis Lee added: “I was able to go and talk to all kinds of stakeholders and discovered that when you talk about infant health, you’re really talking about a woman’s health and that women, especially Black women, were not doing well in this country. And then I talked to lots of groups of women, Black women, who inevitably would tell me a story, someone would tell me a story, about a sister, a friend, a cousin who had died from complications of childbirth.”
Eiselt said she drew inspiration from her own “traumatic” childbirth experiences.
“I’m a mom of four and I’ve had I’ve had traumatic birthing experiences and this was something that I was in tune with,” Eiselt said.
“It wasn’t until the end of 2017 when ProPublica released their investigative reporting about the maternal health crisis in a series called ‘Lost Mothers,’ I really understood that this was a national crisis and what I had experienced on an individual level was endemic to Black women and really profoundly affecting communities of color,” Eiselt added.
Eiselt was really drawn to try to help uplift those stories and shed light on the issue. She became a fellow at Concordia Studio, pitched the project for development and then started to develop the project. During one of the first development shoots she would meet her co-director Tonya Lewis Lee.
Lewis Lee has deep ties to the film industry. She is married to director Spike Lee and made a film called “Crisis in the Crib” back in 2010 about the infant mortality crisis. For her followup, she was looking to partner with another filmmaker like Eiselt because she knew it was a big issue.
“I wanted to tell it from the perspective of people who really were experiencing the crisis and was really happy to follow a verité style documentary filmmaker so that we can really gather our skills together to make this film,” Lewis Lee said.
“Aftershock” is making its world premiere at Sundance in the U.S. Documentary Competition. Watch more of Sharon Waxman’s interview with the filmmakers in the video above.
TheWrap’s Sundance Studio is presented by NFP and National Geographic Documentary Films.