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Richard Leacock and Joyce Chopra's 'Happy Mother's day'

By Gordon Quinn

I first saw Ricky Leacock and Joyce Chopra's Happy Mother's Day in 1964 as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. It showed me the direction of--and the key ideas I would take into--my documentary career. I had seen earlier examples of direct cinema or cinéma vérité (Primary and Eddie from Drew Associates), and in the next few years I would be excited by the Maysles brothers (Salesman), Jean Rouch (Chronicle of a Summer) and Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA). However, Happy Mother's Day taught me the most important lessons: You can never be sure what story you are telling until you are finished, and you have to care about and respect your subjects.

Leacock and Chopra had been sent by The Saturday Evening Post to make a film about the Fisher Quintuplets, born to a rural family in Aberdeen, South Dakota. In 1963, before the advent of fertility drugs, the birth of quintuplets was worldwide news. It appeared that the story would be about this miraculous birth, the joy it brought to the family and the interest and support of the town, as the rest of the country and world was gearing up to shower the family with gifts. The film was slated to be an ABC special.

The film opens with the parents of the quints surrounded by the news media firing questions at the shy country mom, who is clearly uncomfortable with the attention. The narrator then introduces the doctor who handled the delivery, the quints still in their incubators, and finally the town of Aberdeen, as seen from the air.

I had not remembered the narrator. In Kartemquin's early days, we tended to be cinéma vérité purists and went to great lengths to avoid any narration that could stand between the viewer and the unfolding story. In re-viewing Happy Mother's Day I was struck by how the sparse narration, by simply providing facts, nudges the viewer toward the filmmakers' viewpoint.

As we watch the story unfold we see an unexpected tension between the family's values and those of the intruding world--namely the town leaders hoping to capitalize on this rare event. Initially, the father provides milk for his family from cows he has raised. The mother parents her other children with warmth and gentle guidance as she makes sure that each child gets to hold newborn kittens but explains that they must put them back in the nest so the mother cat will find them. However, when a commercial dairy gives a year's supply of milk, the cows are no longer needed. The mother is showered with gifts and taken on a shopping spree in the local stores. In a particularly uncomfortable moment we see her put into a mink coat; her discomfort is palpable as she tries to take it off.

The filmmakers go with this tension, and the film was not what The Saturday Evening Post and ABC where expecting. They cut and broadcast a different version. What still excites me about Leacock and Chopra's version is not just seeing life unfold before the camera but watching the filmmakers find the story. By looking at life's ambiguities, emotions and empathies stirred by concrete details, the "story" was allowed to emerge from what the filmmakers experienced before the camera.


Gordon Quinn is a founder of Kartemquin Films. He recently executive produced Kartemquin's seven-hour PBS series The New Americans and directed the Palestinian story of that series. On Kartemquin's current projects he is executive-producing Terra Incognita, the Hidden Story of Stem Cell Research and Milking the Rhino, and is directing Prisoner of Her Past.