Published: 29 October 2016
Every year, throughout the world, 2·6 million babies are stillborn. That is about the equivalent of the population of Rome. Although I myself am a bereaved mother and stillbirth campaigner, I still find myself struggling to accept this number. But it comes from The Lancet itself, which published a Series aimed at ending preventable stillbirths earlier this year. Still Loved, a full length documentary film about the impact of stillbirth for affected families, begins with a quote from The Lancet's Richard Horton: “This is one of the most neglected, marginalised and stigmatised issues in global health today.”
So given this background of denial and disbelief, how is it that Still Loved is now playing in cinemas up and down the UK? Largely it is due to the courage of film-maker Debbie Howard, from the Sheffield-based film company Big Buddha Films. She initially tried to raise money for the film through the usual channels. Finding that no-one was interested, she spent 4 years crowdfunding the film. When she approached cinemas some told her, with a remarkable lack of tact, that no-one would be interested in that kind of film. But other cinemas were prepared to take the risk. Some screenings of the film are now being followed by question and answer sessions. Those who have seen the film are often shocked but also impressed.
It is certainly true that Still Loved is a film that pulls no punches. It looks in forensic detail at seven bereaved families in the UK over 3 years. These couples talk in intimate detail about what actually happens when a baby dies. They speak about medical procedures, thoughts and feelings, practicalities, the intensity of their pain.
The film is beautifully shot and cuts smoothly from one issue to another. The scenes seem paradoxically to be both grittily realistic and strangely other-worldly. The music adds to the haunting and haunted atmosphere. Particularly effective is the use of slightly shaky home shot footage taken by the families themselves which creates an unsettling and painful claustrophobia. Overall, the result takes us over the boundaries of documentary and into the realms of art.
The home shot footage also, inevitably, includes actual images of babies who are dead or dying. The decision not to draw back from these images is particularly courageous but also challenging. It is only in recent years that such images have been seen anywhere, let alone on cinema screens. What they do is bring home the simple fact that these are real lives—lives that could have lasted many years—but are now lost.
So the film is certainly devastatingly accurate but what can we learn from it? What I saw, above all else, is how important ritual becomes in times of extreme adversity. In a now largely secular society, rituals have to be reinvented. We watch as mourners use teddy bears, wind chimes, and named blankets to make domestic shrines. Photograph albums and memory boxes are created with a near-religious intensity. We watch as one couple struggles with the question of how to hold a first birthday party for a baby who is not there, and applaud the brave friends who stand in the back garden listening to speeches and letting go of balloons.
Denial and silence are also a significant part of the lived experience. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when one of the bereaved fathers says, with quiet dignity, that he always makes an effort to attend the birthday parties organised by friends who have living children. Yet most of those same friends have never asked where his son is buried. Also, a mother shows the photograph of her dead babies which are proudly displayed in her front room. She then tells the story of a visitor to the house who asked for the photographs to be turned to face the wall.
But finally is the film too claustrophobic? Should it have moved beyond these specific stories to ask bigger questions about why so many babies are stillborn? After all, in the UK about half of unexplained stillbirths might be linked to poor medical care. Should the film not have included more about understaffed maternity wards, lack of sufficient scanning, poor recording of information?
On balance, I tend to think not. Ultimately, the narrow focus of the film is its strength. All those wider questions are there but it is the viewer who has to consider them. This is that rare film which actually manages to be highly political without ever mentioning politics. All that Debbie Howard—and those seven families—are doing is simply asking that we should see.
This may seem a rather limited ambition but as writer James Baldwin says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” That sadly tells you all you need to know about why the rate of stillbirths in the UK remains stubbornly high.
Yet this situation is not devoid of hope. Things are changing—slowly. The fact that a film such as Still Loved has been made can be understood as part of a wider—and positive—shift in attitudes to death. Look at the surprise success in the UK of Death Cafés and of the Dying Matters coalition with its simple slogan, “Let's Talk About It”. Both are evidence that we are realising that endless “feel good” stories do not make us feel good in the longer term. You cannot live fully if you are not also able to accept death. Emotional authenticity may have more to offer us than the coercive mantra of “positive thinking”.
The families shown in Still Loved have so much to teach us—not just about stillbirths but about bereavement and adversity more generally. No-one in the film talks about “moving on” or “getting over it”. Instead they are interested in how life and death can be integrated. They all discover in different ways how we can keep our loved one alive—not as a reason for endless mourning but rather as a source of inspiration, courage, and continuing love for the living.
Still Loved also makes clear—by showing the comfort offered by family and friends—that we all have a role to play in this. The medical profession may be on the front line but if wider society is going to deal better with stillbirths and death, we have to work on the problem as a community. At this time of year we could ditch all those ghastly trick or treat sweets, and the rubber skeletons, and take a walk in the local cemetery instead, honouring our own dead and that greater mass of the dead who all contributed in some way to the world we now live in. Or more simply, but more courageously, we could just take the time to ask a bereaved friend if they would like to share some photographs or memories.
Interestingly, research from the University of Oxford University has suggested that weeping in the cinema might actually make us feel better. Apparently, it increases feelings of group bonding and raises levels of endorphins in the brain. So get yourself along to a screening of Still Loved and have a good cry. You might feel much better for it. You could also sign the petition on the film's website that has been set up to persuade broadcasters to show the film on television. Most of us want to live in a world where all the stories are heard, even the ones which are challenging. But sadly those who supply our “culture” often decide we need protecting from the reality of the world we are living in. Thankfully, Debbie Howard and the families who feature in Still Loved want to share experiences of stillbirth and tell it like it is—pushing the issue of stillbirths into the mainstream. But we have a long way to go and the road ahead is all uphill.
Still Loved Directed by Debbie Howard. Big Buddha Films, 2016 http://www.stilllovedfilm.com/
For screening in the UK see http://www.stilllovedfilm.com/screenings.html
To read the article in The Lancet click here and register.