Graphic Births, Good for the Soul, in New Midwives Doc

The groovy movie posterDid you know that the home-birth world had its very own rock star? Yep: Ina May Gaskin, the world's most famous midwife, worshiped by natural-birth proponents since 1975, when her book Spiritual Midwifery, now in its fourth edition, captivated women everywhere.

And this week, when a new doc examining her life and work opened in New York City, with Gaskin on hand to answer post-film questions, her groupies showed up in full force—more than 200 of them. Many of them were hugely pregnant, and a handful carried newborns, nursing in their slings. They got what they came for, both from the 72-year-old dynamo, a warm, old-school hippie who covered topics from acid trips to vaginal walls, and from the film, Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives, packed with more raucous, gooey, joyous birth scenes than pretty much anyone has ever seen.

"We've got young women now who think giving birth the old way is gross," Gaskin laments early on in the film, made by young moms Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore, who found inspiration for their own births in Spiritual Midwifery (and who were also at the NYC screening, though the fans had clearly come for Ina May). She goes on to dole some startling statistics, like the fact that one in three U.S. births winds up a C-section. She herself has helped bring more than 1,200 babies into the world—and reached the 180th birth, at the start of her career, before ever having to send a mom into operating room.

But don't roll your eyes, skeptics; unlike the wonderful-in-its-own-right Business of Being Born, this tale is not set up to freak, but to calm. And it's packed with enough amazing old footage of free-love make-out sessions (during birth, natch), packs of precious little kids, and bearded, braided, doe-eyed hippies making tofu and bread and babies to do the job very well. And no matter where you stand on the polarizing issue of where and how to birth your child, you only stand to gain from watching this thoughtful, thought-provoking, fascinating film.

Most of the action takes place on the Farm, a Tennessee commune begun in 1971 by Ina May (as all her fans call her) and her husband, Stephen Gaskin, a dynamic, sort of secular guru who drew legions of fans to this rural land. It was there that Ina May, forever changed by the birth of her first child, when doctors pressured her into being strapped down on a delivery table to endure a forceps delivery, dedicated her life to midwifery. She trained many of the women around her, and the Farm developed into a groovy place where expectant mothers flocked from around the world, to birth on their own terms.

Ina May, middle, doing an exam."We were making our own culture about birth, of which fear wasn't going to be a part," Ina May explains in the film. And the appeal of that, she adds, was wide. "It wasn't just a few hippies who were interested in better birthing. It was all kinds of people."

Birth Story captures plenty of poignant modern moments, too, such as when Ina May tells a room full of women at a book signing, "Your body is not a lemon," or when she returns home from a long birth late at night to Stephen, and we see her just shuffling around the kitchen and shutting off lights like everyone does, as if she's not just returned from witnessing the most extraordinary thing.

But it's seeing all those magical births, really—breech births, ecstatic births, water births, a near-emergency "shoulder dystocia" birth, in which the brave mom must flip onto her knees with a head hanging out of her vagina in order to get her 10-pound-baby unstuck—that will really seduce and thrill you. As one of the other Farm midwives, Pamela Hunt, puts it so beautifully in the film, "You can't help but love someone who is working that hard."

Find a schedule of national screenings, in cities from Los Angeles to Winchester, VA, here.