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Filmmaking | Interviews | Massachusetts

Festival Spotlight: BirthMarkings

1 Sep , 2012  

Written by Alli Rock | Posted by:

The Festival brings together filmmakers from all over New England, with all different styles and stories to tell. Every week, we will be publishing interviews with new festival filmmakers. This week, hear from Margaret Lazarus about her experimental documentary Birthmarkings.

Documentary filmmaker Margaret Lazarus has been making films in Cambridge, MA for over 30 years, and they have gone one to win an Academy Award and screen all over the world. For BirthMarkings, which screened at the WAM! Boston Film Festival in 2011, she turned her attention to a subject that affects millions of women, and yet rarely every gets talked about — “the post birth belly” and its place in our “nip-tuck culture.”

She shares her experiences in making and screening her film below.

Alli Rock: What inspired you to create this film?

Margaret Lazarus: The idea for this film began when I read that the post birth tummy tuck was one of the fastest growing plastic surgeries for women. I thought about what it meant that so many of us wanted to erase the signs of one of the most profoundly creative things we do. I started to talk to so many women about how they felt about their post birth bodies and the response was overwhelming. People I didn’t know well would lift their shirts and show me their scars and stretch marks and talk about their ambivalence toward their new bodies. I knew there was an important film here.

AR: All of your interviews are framed in a very specific way: only showing the woman’s belly area. What led you to that choice?

Lazarus: I wanted to stress the universality of the experience and thought that if people didn’t see faces or clothes they could focus on what the women were thinking and feeling and could identify easily with the shared experiences. I discovered that the women in the film were much more comfortable being anonymous. In some cases people would not have been as open about specific things like abuse if they were clearly identifiable.

Filming only women’s torsos began as an experiment but the freedom the women felt was exhilarating for me. I decided that this was the way to go with all of the film. My biggest problem became narrowing down the number of women in the final edit. So many women wanted to participate and tell their story… It was something that they thought about but in most cases had never talked about before so it led to an outpouring of stories and emotion.

AR: Your film definitely tells a story that is not often talked about. What has the reaction been from audiences?

Lazarus: When I speak with the film so many people want to talk and relate to what the film has made them feel and think. To a filmmaker there can be no greater success than that. People want to look at women’s bodies as art and relate to the way we reframe the scars and signs of dynamism in the body. People want to talk about the shame when we feel are bodies are less than perfect or don’t correspond to some commodified, airbrushed image. People want to talk about the hijacking of our sexuality by advertising. People want to talk about other changes in their bodies. Intimate partners want to talk about how they feel and react to body image anxieties of their loved ones. People react to the beauty of the images and how it has made them feel. If we don’t have to leave the theatre or screening room, I often can’t leave for hours.

AR: How has living and working in New England affected who you are as a filmmaker?

Lazarus: New England has made me what I am as a filmmaker. I began working as a producer/writer for a public affairs show at the then Boston CBS affiliate and after a year my partner, Renner Wunderlich and I started a non profit organization, Cambridge Documentary Films.

Our first film Taking Our Bodies Back: The Women’s Health Movement, began distribution with a grant from “Our Bodies Ourselves” and we were taught how to distribute films by New England based New Day Film member Joyce Chopra. The late Betsy Hogan from Boston NOW had created a slide show about the impact of advertising, and the section on advertising in medical magazines was incorporated into our first film. Local women’s health activists from the Cambridge Feminist Women’s Health Center became part of that film as well.

My connections and work with the Boston area Rape Crisis center as well as a friendship with people from the DC Rape Crisis Center who moved to Boston, led to the creation of Rape Culture our second film. It goes on and on.

Our friendship with Joe Gerson from the New England American Friends Service Committee, Tony Palumbo then of New England’s Mobilization for survival as well as connections with Helen Caldicott, then of the Boston chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, led to the production of Last Empire: US Intervention and Nuclear War. Nick Salvatore, who was then a professor at Holy Cross was instrumental in helping us make our film about Eugene Debs.

Stacey Kabat worked at the Framingham prison for a New England organization called Social Justice for Women. She asked me to tape some of the domestic violence survivors she knew there and Defending Our Lives began there. We were helped on that film by our advisors including Dr. Judith Herman who went on to advise and mentor us on our subsequent work, especially serving as an inspiration for Strong at the Broken Places: Turning Trauma into Recovery Discussions with Judith Herman are an essential part of the infrastructure of all of our work from then on. We made our film about homophobia, Pink Triangles, in collaboration with several of the members of the New England Gay Speakers Bureau. I know I am leaving out whole films that could only have happened because I lived and worked in New England.

AR: How was your experience at the WAM! Boston Film Festival?

Lazarus: Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the WAM festival but our camerawoman and editor Sarah Ledoux was there. She said that audience clamored for discussion of BirthMarkings echoing my experiences.

BirthMarkings is screening as a part of the Festival from Sept 1 through October 15. Check it out here.

BirthMarkings is screening as a part of the Festival from Sept 1 through October 15. Check it out here.