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Kartemquin Films 50: ‘Marco’

Editor’s Note

Kartemquin Films is a not-for-profit organization in Chicago, which has been producing innovative documentaries to inspire democracy and action for 50 years. To celebrate this milestone, the collaborative group is featuring a film they produced every week, from now until the end of 2016. Each film is available to watch for free until the next film in their catalog is posted every Friday.

From this point onward, I expect to highlight each film with posts aimed at calling attention to the important work Kartemquin has done and how the group has impacted the art of cinema over the past half century. Two films from the early years, “Home for Life,” and “Inquiring Nuns,” have already been featured. I will publish posts about those films in the coming weeks. —Kevin Gosztola

In 1969, it was against the law in Chicago for fathers to be in the delivery room with mothers during childbirth. Natural childbirth was also taboo.

Kartemquin Films co-founder Jerry Temaner, his wife, Barbara, and Kartemquin cameraman and co-founder Gordon Quinn created a documentary, “Marco,” that captured a beautiful experience and stood as a strong feminist statement on the spiritual fulfillment of giving birth to a child.

Marco was their first baby. Barbara wanted to have Marco without anesthetics or any other drugs. She also wanted Jerry to be in the room to help her. The two traveled out of state to Kenosha, Wisconsin, in order to find a hospital that would allow them to be in the room together when Marco was born.

The film shows Barbara and Jerry using the Lamaze technique to prepare for Marco’s birth. A captured conversation offers insights into why husbands might be banned from a delivery room and why doctors would want women to be sedated. When it is time for the couple to go to the hospital, they travel out of state and the rest of the film takes place in the hospital.

The style of the film is like other earlier works, cinéma vérité, however, it does break with the convention when Barbara speaks to the camera about why she wants to have a natural childbirth experience.

It has theme music from legendary composer Philip Glass, which means Marco, who is in his forties now, has the honor of having his own Philip Glass theme.

Not every scene shows Barbara going through a spiritually transcendent experience. Sometimes it seems like she may give up before Marco is born and have the nurses medicate her. But her husband helps her through the discomfort and pain.

Childbirth is one of the most intimate and vulnerable moments for a woman, but Barbara allows the camera to capture all parts of the birth process. There also is a scene of Barbara breast feeding immediately after the birth. (Barbara advocated for breast feeding after Marco was born, especially because of risks posed by formula manufacturers.)

The law in Chicago was changed soon after the film was completed. That does not change how compelling it is to see a couple insist that the woman be the central figure in childbirth, and the doctor serves the woman’s needs as she needs medical assistance through the process.

Any couple about to have their first baby can watch this film to give them a sense of how fulfilling it is to have a child. And, in a more radical sense, the film represents what happens when a woman is not treated as an incubator but rather is granted the opportunity to transform a customary medical transaction into a life-affirming human experience.

[Watch “Thumbs Down” and “Parents” for free at Kartemquin Films’ website. [Available until February 11.]

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."