New Parenthood and Documentary Inequity
Last June my debut feature film Pray Away premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is a career milestone I am grateful for, and one I’ll never forget for many reasons. This includes having experienced the majority of said premiere overwhelmed and half-topless in a production trailer behind the big screen.
Why, you ask? I was pumping milk for my then two-and-a-half month baby.
In these first few months of new parenthood, I've learned that behind the countless “moms in film” panels and hashtags, there is not enough tangible support in our industry or culture for parents.
I felt this having to pump throughout my film’s release, which was hard even with the exceptional support of an accomplished production company and an incredibly well-resourced distributor. I encourage anyone organizing events in our field to read here about what a lactation room ideally includes, and to have a proactive system and point person in place to assist those who need one.
But however you feed your baby is just one small piece of the complex parenthood-in-film puzzle. The deepest challenge of my own postpartum experience was managing birth trauma, a form of PTSD that often gets misdiagnosed as postpartum depression or anxiety. I had a long and scary labor, including a moment where my partner feared losing me and our child. Those first few months remain a fog. I lived through one of the many reasons we need stronger parental leave policies that recognize how tender the early days of parenting can be.
My experience made me believe that experiences of parenthood intersect with the crucial conversations our field is having about equity and sustainability. Over this past month, I connected with 11 other new parents working in documentary. And overwhelmingly, through those conversations, my suspicion was confirmed.
Most consistently, people spoke of economic justice and the need to be paid for our work. Most meaningfully, people spoke of the contradictions of being a parent in film. It can be a source of real frustration, but also of deep joy. People also spoke of parenthood as an intersectional experience, not only in our industry but also in our society. My baby and I ultimately emerged healthy from my difficult birth experience, but for babies and birth parents of color, the feared outcome of my labor is all the more likely to become a reality.
What’s become abundantly clear to me in writing this article is that so much of what people talked about—from needing benefits and protections in gig work to craving sane hours that allow us to nurture our personal lives—are shifts in our field that could benefit everyone, regardless of whether or not you have, or want to have, children.
The solutions are systemic. But I am a half-glass-full person by nature, and I do think solutions, many of which are mentioned in the interviews and insights from filmmakers below, are in our grasp.
Those filmmakers include Débora Souza Silva (Director, Black Mothers); Helen Hood Scheer (Producer, Body Parts; Creative Nonfiction Track Head in the Film & Electronic Arts department at California State University Long Beach); Jessica Jones (Director/Editor, On The Pulse of Life); Jessica Lee Salas (Editor, The Loving Generation); Daniel Chávez Ontiveros (Editor, 499); Eréndira Olivera Benítez (Associate Producer, Los Hermanos/The Brothers); Lauren DeFilippo (Producer, AILEY); Nico Opper (Director/Producer, The F Word); Poh Si Teng (Producer, St. Louis Superman; Director, IDA Fund & Enterprise Program); Ursula Liang (Director/Producer, Down a Dark Stairwell); and Yael Bridge (Director, The Big Scary S Word).
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
On Giving Birth in this Moment, in this Industry
HELEN HOOD SCHEER: My baby, Maude, was born on March 20, 2021. She’s both an equinox and a pandemic baby. I'm an older mom, so Maude was very much a planned and wanted baby, as all IVF babies are. She came through healthy and beautiful, and is seven months old.
JESSICA LEE SALAS: When I had my baby, I was just beginning to freelance. For a freelancer, there's no maternal leave or anything like that. So I just had to save up, and I was fortunate to have help from my partner. I planned to have at least four months off after I gave birth, and to do a couple of short things at home in between that. It sucks as a freelancer. There is no help.
DÉBORA SOUSA SILVA: I had no idea how challenging it would be to be a mom and a filmmaker at the same time. Of course it’s a wonderful experience, but it brings a lot of challenges when you work in this industry. I had my baby in the third year of making Black Mothers. I basically worked until the day I gave birth. I had funding, but I didn’t have funding to have a whole crew working with me.
POH SI TENG: I had a baby earlier this year, a few months before COVID vaccines were available. All of last year was challenging for me and for so many in our field. It was the year of intersectional reckonings, and the renewed urgency forced me to really take stock of what I wanted to do with our documentary community. It's easy to intellectualize how things can be better, but when you have a child, it's experiential. You actually have to seriously think on how you want to operationalize equity.
LAUREN DEFILLIPPO: Part of the challenge is about being able to have a kid in our industry in the first place. It was something that I put off for a very long time because I just felt like I needed to be able to travel, I needed to be able to work long hours, and I needed to be able to put all of myself into my film projects. I still am, frankly, conflicted about that. Am I trying to fit a square peg in a round hole now by having a kid and trying to make films? But when I gut-check myself about it, I'm like, Okay, but we make films. I'm not curing cancer; I'm not a brain surgeon. And even brain surgeons have babies.
On Having Less Time
URSULA LIANG: I had my baby, Teo, on March 28 and my film Down a Dark Stairwell premiered on Independent Lens April 12. One of the things that I’m really disappointed in with the release of my film is that I’m normally very involved. But with the timing of my son and the pandemic, I wasn’t able to be as squeaky of a wheel as I should have been, and I feel like I missed some opportunities. I’m fixated on what I can do next with the impact campaign, but I also didn’t have time to raise all the outreach costs. An impact campaign is something I would have done for free for almost any film that I’ve ever cared about, but now that I’m a single mom, I can’t do things for free anymore.
ERÉNDIRA OLIVERA BENÍTEZ: [Partner to Daniel] We kept working just to keep paying bills. I had personal projects that I set aside and that I haven’t been able to go back to because there is no time. The time that I have to work needs to be productive in the sense that it will bring income to the house.
DANIEL CHÁVEZ ONTIVEROS: [Partner to Eréndira] Yeah, because our personal projects are not funded yet.
JLS: I'm in a support group for women filmmakers, but I’m the only mom. Everyone was talking about all these different projects that were going on, and I'm just like, I can really only focus on one project at a time because I have this other project, which is my kid.
JESSICA JONES: So much of motherhood and parenting is forgiveness where you're like, Well, I just didn’t have the time to do this as well as I probably would've been able to before, and I just have to be able to learn to live with that and move forward.
DSS: On one hand, now everything is so much more challenging. My baby’s two-and-a-half years old, and I’m still tired. But, on the other hand, being a parent has helped me to prioritize things. I’m much more selective about the work that I’m doing.
On Hacking Together Parental Leave
UL: To have to go back to work after a standard parental leave in the US is outrageous, but we as independent filmmakers don’t even have that. We don’t have anything built in.
JJ: One thing that really works in my favor is that I live in the State of California. So as a contractor, I don't get any leave time from my job. I get it all from the state. I was lucky enough to get a month of disability through the State of California and then three months' leave with an additional month of job protection. But that is not the case in any other places.
DSS: [Speaking of the same policy in California] I started researching when I was already pregnant, but guess what? I learned that I would have to have paid into disability insurance. And I didn’t know that because I was so busy producing my film. A friend of mine got pregnant and she’s a documentary filmmaker. I said, “Get this insurance now because if you are working for yourself then you need to have something!” But I didn’t get that.
DCO: I don’t know if it’s specific to our culture, since we’re from Mexico and it’s a traditional society. But I would say that being a man, even though times have changed, you still feel that you need to provide for your family. I would say that it would be amazing if paid parental leave was for both parents, so as dads we could also just enjoy those early days of nurturing and being able to be a primary caretaker for our child.
YAEL BRIDGE: I ran my film through a 501 (c)(3) that I started for my film, and I salaried myself through the 501(c)(3). We had a formal parental leave policy that would apply to me as the only employee of my company, but we didn’t have enough money at the time of my leave, so it was not available. Plus, I couldn’t take time off. We were in the middle of post-production, and we were gunning for deadlines. I couldn’t tell my editor, “Hey, I’m going to take three months off, can you go please find another project? But I’ll be back in three months.” I needed to finish or I would lose my whole team.
JJ: You are the source of your child's existence when you're breastfeeding, and everything stops with you—how much water you get, the stuff you are eating, how much sleep you get. I think people also don't get that if you don't pump, your supply goes down, and it's really hard to build up.
JLS: In one job I had, I needed a place to pump. They gave me an archival closet. It was literally a closet with shelves of betas and tapes, and there was hardly any room in there. It was very uncomfortable, but I brought in my laptop. You have to pump every two hours and, personally, I felt like I was only at this job for a limited amount of time. So I didn’t want to take away the time that I needed to get stuff done. And, also, I didn’t want to be viewed as less productive.
LD: Because of the pandemic, I've been able to be at home so much during this time. When I think of our production office that, in normal times, I was going to every day, I don't know where I would be pumping. How many 30-minute chunks of the day can you take up the one bathroom in your office? Or I guess you just suck it up and pull out your boob in front of your coworkers. Is that what we're supposed to do? I don't know what the solutions are but we really need to figure something out; it blows my mind how little the world accommodates women in this way.
DCO: Sometimes we are afraid, and we don’t say, Oh, I have a kid. Working with people who want to have a family or who already have a family is easier, just because you understand each other.
JLS: I think it's my own conditioning that I think people are gonna judge me because I'm a working mother, which sounds ridiculous. It sounds ridiculous to have that in my head. I think it's my own prejudice because before I had a kid, I probably felt that of other parents.
NICO OPPER: I remember feeling like a lot of the parenting issues my friends and peers were facing were not my parenting issues, having gone through adoption. There was fear on multiple levels: this fear of feeling overwhelmed like I didn’t know what I was doing—like every brand-new parent—but also the additional layers of still navigating the system, still having to kind of understand my parenting in the context of the foster care system and what it means to have the government play a part in your personal life.
On Parenthood as an Intersectional Experience
UL: I think all caretakers are pushed out of the field. Another complication, and one of the reasons I came out to California, is that my mother has dementia and my sister is caring for her. It’s the silent challenges that people are dealing with that make it impossible for you to do the work.
YB: I have a chronic illness. I have ulcerative colitis and I’ve had that for over 20 years now. I wasn’t sure whether the language of disability was something I should identify with. I’m friends with Jim LeBrecht, so I asked him to talk to me. He is an incredibly beautiful person and very generous with his time; he not only encouraged me to use that language, but said it’s important for people who present as healthy embrace that language.
I don’t want to be the spokesperson for anything, but I have also felt like I have been deeply discriminated against because of my condition over the years; that’s been hard, working through illness. But my condition also helped me know what my limitations are, which really helped when I was pregnant and a new mom. For example, I can’t really be stressed. My disease is stress-induced, so I work to be more lenient with myself and my team when it comes to deadlines. No one works well under pressure. Edits don’t make sense when you’re up until 6:00 a.m. doing them, and I can’t do that anyway. My body will fall apart. So, I have an internal barometer that I think helps make my crews and my projects casual without being loose. Just saying things like, “This is the environment that we’re going to be working in,” helps.
NO: I identify as a gender-nonbinary parent, which has been an interesting part of the journey. For me it took becoming a parent to actually become my most authentic self. I knew that in order to model authenticity and bravery for my kid, I had to do that for myself first. Before having a kid, I hadn’t really thought about just how gendered parenting, and the language around it, is. It’s still very hard to get anybody to just call me a parent. The urge is to say “mom” and “mommy,” and I’m not really in the business of correcting people. It’s not comfortable for me so I mostly let that slide, and yet I wince a little each time. It’s a little nick because I’m not a mom, I’m not a mommy.
UL: Being a single parent is really hard. You don’t realize how hard it is until you’re in it. One of the hardest things is that my body is really breaking down. When you’re in a couple, you get to share the physical load of holding and caring for a baby. But when you’re a single parent and you’re doing 100% of the physical caring for the baby; there’s no relief. I’m in pain doing all the repetitive movements that you have to do to care for a baby. And now my shoulder is hurting and my friends keep telling me it’s going to creep through my body and it’s going to be my back next. Those are all things that I need as a filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker who shoots, and I don’t think I could hold a camera for very long right now. There’s no break at all.
HHS: I am a single mom and was single when I froze my eggs about a decade ago. When I started that process, I had to go to a workshop at my doctor’s office, where they taught you how to do the drug injections. I was the only single person in that group. The woman running the training kept saying how difficult it was physically to shoot yourself up and carry the mental load, and how it was really "a two-person job." It was so surprisingly insensitive, especially in San Francisco, where I would think that they're more progressive and hip to all sorts of alternative family structures. And while I was pregnant, people at doctors’ offices and the hospital repeatedly asked whether or not my husband was coming in with me. It was surprising that in 2021 it was still assumed that I had a partner and that he was male. These have both been frequent assumptions.
JJ: There's an exhibit that's going to open this fall at the Smithsonian Museum called Futures We Dream. I am one of nine filmmakers, and we're all doing three-and-a-half-minute films on some kind of subject matter looking towards the future. I knew that I was going to have to be working on this during my maternity leave, so I wanted to do a subject matter that I thought I would be interested in at that time, so obviously, birth and maternal care was a big one. My piece is more of an experimental reflection on getting access to care for Black women during their maternity leave. If women are cared for in their birth and their pregnancy, then the outcomes for the baby are so much better. It's also a piece that, I wanted to ensure, celebrates Black women. It's not sad. We need to have a conversation about maternal health in this country, for sure. I used some of my own birth footage in there. I'm really happy with the timing of the piece because it was a nice time for me to be able to reflect on the birth and the birthing experience.
On Class, Economic Justice and Getting Paid
YB: It’s really hard for me to talk about any of this stuff without talking about class. I would really encourage you to try and figure out a way to weave that in somehow. The industry is largely a rich white man’s hobby and we’re all just here trying to squeeze lemonade out of it and it doesn’t actually work. My film is about socialism, a movement all about exploitation and unpaid labor at work and at home. There are all these ways our society keeps people from thriving. . By not having universal daycare, paid parental leave, Medicare for all, and so forth, we're dictating that practically the only people who can be filmmakers, make art and tell stories are those with access to financial resources. I find that deeply troubling and damning as a society. And damaging on every level, not just in film and art, but in every occupation.
LD: It's such a weird, all-consuming profession that we've chosen, so I feel like I have to own that piece of it, and I'm privileged enough to do it and figure it out. But it makes me question the exploitation of the industry overall, that it's expected that we put ourselves—mind, body and soul—into the work. We have created a system where that's just a given, and if you're not doing that, you're doing something wrong.
DSS: Another important thing is childcare stipends. This is something I didn’t think about before I was a parent. But when I became a mom I was like, If I go to this shoot and if my husband is working on that Saturday too, I have to spend at least $20 per hour for a babysitter. Before, I would go to my shoots, and sometimes I wouldn’t even pay myself because I was like, It’s my film and I don’t have the funding. But now, it’s really hard for me to think, I’m going to go to this shoot, I’m not going to pay myself, and I’m going to spend money on childcare that I didn’t make in the first place. If you had funding for your film and if you could include childcare stipends, I think that would make things more equal.
On Needing Childcare at Festivals and Events
HHS: If we had childcare at events, there could be so much community that could come from that. And so much community in terms of networking for families to potentially make new collaborations.
DSS: I can’t count how many times I had to go to film festivals and not be able to watch films. The last time I was at Sundance, I was there with Brown Girls Doc Mafia and I had all these amazing opportunities to meet funders and I was like, Okay, I’m going to attend those meetings. I brought my husband to be with my son at those moments, but then I had to choose to not watch any films because there is no childcare at film festivals.
NO: I was blown away when I attended True/False a few years ago for the first time and discovered they offered childcare to their filmmakers. I hadn't brought my kid with me, but I was deeply moved.
On Needing More Funding Opportunities
JJ: We all know that, if you're starting a film out yourself, you're supporting yourself. That's the reality of our industry. Not that many people get research grants. There just aren't enough of them out there, so we need more research grants that allow people, especially women of color, to be able to tell more stories. We don't think about the fact that so much of the work we do early on is for free. Having a child is really expensive, so it just becomes even more prohibitively expensive for someone to be in this field when they're a parent.
UL: Asian American work is very underfunded, especially in development. I was really impolite at my Gotham Week meetings in September because the project I’ve been working on is already with public television, so we weren’t able to have full conversations with certain people. I wanted to make the point with them that the reason we’re not able to have a full conversation with you is because you’re not supporting enough Asian American work early. If we are mothers that need to get childcare or feed our families, we can’t work for free on our projects until they’re at the point of acquisition; we need the early development money, and the only place that’s doing that right now for our community is public television. So if we’re talking about Asian American single moms like me, people have to get in early or I’m not going to be able to do the work.
We also need artist support, rather than project support. That would be the quickest solution to us having sustainable careers. With artist support grants, we might not spend money on our DP or our editor. We might spend it on our rent, but that’s the only thing that’s going to enable us to make the work.
HHS: I'd love to see more funding opportunities that are specifically dedicated to moms, and additional funding opportunities that are dedicated specifically to single moms and mid-career filmmakers. Regardless of whether the funding is earmarked for salaries or childcare, that’s money that helps to support a film by helping to support the maintenance of the mothers’ financial obligations.
PST: I'll always be a documentary filmmaker first, and then I'm also a journalist, and now I happen to be the Director of Funds & the Enterprise Program at IDA. In terms of the role institutions have to play in supporting parents, it's really about making sure that independent filmmakers get some sort of funding that is unrestricted. The bar to entry into filmmaking is very high and it is, unfortunately, higher for people of color, LGBTQI+, filmmakers with disabilities and also people who are parents. So to your question about what role can institutions do, if they look after funds, then it's to make sure that the grantmaking process is fairer. How can the process be fairer? How can we make sure that everybody gets as equal a chance as possible in the fight for resources in our field? That is something I think about constantly, since becoming a mother.
On Creativity and Joy
UL: As a creative person, I’ve always worked best with restrictions, confines and challenges; that’s part of being a documentary filmmaker. And that’s still part of what’s happening here. I know my restrictions, confines and challenges are different now. There are questions like, Where can I be? How can I film with a baby attached to my chest?
JJ: Being a mom is great. Sometimes it's easy to be like, these things are really hard, but it's also very rewarding. This is the biggest creative project of my life.
EOB: I am enjoying being a mom. And I like that we are having more conversations about what can be done. I like that I feel less self-conscious. When I’m breastfeeding now, I don’t have to hide myself or turn off the camera, or at least I’m trying not to do it because that’s something that I’d like to normalize.
DSS: My film is about mothers who lost their children to police brutality, and it’s really hard for me to work on this topic now that I have a child too. On the other hand, I feel like my project took a special turn after I became a mom because I feel like I started highlighting more the sisterhood that moms have in the movement, and the love and care they have for each other. My project now is not about the grief as much as about the power that these moms have when they are together. It’s about them helping each other because they all have been in the same situation.
NO: It opens you up so much—nothing forces you to live in the present as much as having a kid.
PST: It's hard but it's been really wonderful, and it’s been a good reminder of the work we do and what we're fighting for in our field.
Kristine Stolakis is a documentary filmmaker whose films examine how power, politics, and prejudice unfold in real people’s lives. She is the director of Lamplighter Films. Pray Away (2021) is her debut feature documentary and can be streamed on Netflix.