There’s nary a mention of abortion in “Aftershock,” the Sundance award-winning documentary that premieres on Hulu this week. But co-directors Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee say their film, which unpacks the disproportionate rate at which American Black women die in or after childbirth, delivers an important message that’s underscored by the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“It’s all one conversation — material health is abortion care, is health care. They’re all the same and we need to be talking about it together as a full spectrum of reproductive rights,” Eiselt told IndieWire. “In ‘Aftershock,’ we really show choice. In the same way that you need the fundamental right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy, if you do choose to carry that pregnancy, then it’s a human right to have dignified and safe care, and at the very least survive the pregnancy — that’s the lowest possible bar.”
The film follows the activism and grief of the families of two mothers: Shamony Gibson, who died in October 2019 less than two weeks after giving birth, after her family says medical professionals failed to give her appropriate care that could have prevented her death from a pulmonary embolism; and Amber Rose Isaac, who died in April 2020 after an emergency C-section.
Weaving together these stories with analysis and statistics, the filmmakers illustrate how the American approach to birthing has given the U.S. the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world, and how Black mothers are at higher risk of death.
Eiselt and Lee were united earlier over their shared interest in the broad conversation of maternal health. Eiselt was in the development stages of what would become “Aftershock” when the pair met. Lee was already interested in making a film on the maternal mortality crisis after stories emerged around 2017 about the issue and after her work around infant mortality, through the 2009 film “Crisis in the Crib,” and as a spokesperson for the federal government’s efforts on the issue.
They quickly got to work on a trajectory that ultimately coincided with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last month that allowed states to determine abortion rights for the first time since Roe in 1973. In addition to calls for the protection of peoples’ access to the procedure, advocates in recent weeks have shone a light on the bleak realities of access to maternal health care, disproportionate mortality outcomes, and child care that are made even more pressing at the specter of what essentially amounts to forced births in the dozen states and counting that completely or severely restrict abortion.
“An infant’s health, a woman’s health, is an indicator of the health of a nation. If babies aren’t doing well and women aren’t doing that well, that means our nation is not really that healthy and the statistics prove it out,” Lee said. “The vision was really about telling the story of a huge systemic problem through the lived experiences of people who were dealing with it. We were very clear about that from the moment we first started talking and throughout the process of making the film. I think that’s partly why we were so successful in being able to go out and raise the funds for the film.”
Among the funders was Impact Partners, a coalition of 45 individual nonfiction investors who have recently backed “Allen v. Farrow,” “Procession,” and “Athlete A” and is now in its 15th year. Those social-issue driven titles, like “Aftershock,” found commercial success and made big slashes, but at the development stage studios often balk at the risky proposition, said Impact Partners Executive Director Jenny Raskin.
“For the investors on our side, I think it was a no-brainer, once they started to see some material. But that doesn’t mean it was a no-brainer in terms of the marketplace for the film … there are limited bigger commercial opportunities for social impact films,” Raskin said. “We’re always looking for projects that are going to make connections between issues and also will still feel important and relevant a year, or two years, three years, sometimes five years down the road, because it can take that long.”
“Aftershock” earned universal acclaim out of its premiere at this year’s Sundance, where it won the Impact for Change Special Jury Award, and was acquired by Disney’s Black stories-focused Onyx Collective and ABC News for release on Hulu in the U.S., Star+ in Latin America, and Disney+ in other territories. Raskin counts that as a success, though notes that for Impact Partners a “dual bottom-line” approach considers not just where a film ends up, but the resonance it creates.
With her film “93Queen,” Eiselt saw that firsthand. The film, which follows the all-female Orthodox Jewish ambulance service operating in otherwise exclusively male Orthodox emergency services landscape in New York City, was submitted as evidence to state officials ahead of their decision that allowed the service to operate.
With “Aftershock,” the filmmakers have found eager collaborators in Impact and Onyx, who want nothing less than to take the film to anyone who needs it. Next up: they’re in talks to screen the film to providers at one of New York City’s largest hospital systems and for insurance companies, Eiselt said.
“Aftershock” will start streaming on Hulu on Tuesday, July 19.