Thursday, November 04, 2010

Review of DVD "The Big Stretch"

The Big Stretch by Alieta Belle and Jenny Blyth
60-minute DVD plus 20-page educational booklet
Produced in Australia
The Big Stretch by Alieta Belle and Jenny Blyth is different from any other birth film I've ever seen. It's not an educational film about the birth process. It's not an advocacy film promoting a certain kind of birth. It's not an exposé of what is wrong with our maternity care system. It's not really a film about natural birth, or home birth, or midwives (although incidentally that's what all of the women featured in the film chose). It's not a documentary with a clear narrative arc. There are no experts or "talking heads." Besides a woman's reflective voice-over weaving in and out of the film--such as There's a lot of stretching going on and a lot of stretching to do. Am I ready? Will I ever be ready? Does birth wait for me to be ready?--there is no narrator.

So what is The Big Stretch about? If I could answer that question in one sentence, it would be this:

The Big Stretch explores how women and their partners prepared--physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally--for the "big stretch" of pregnancy, birth, and mothering.

Set in the lush Australian landscape, The Big Stretch follows over a dozen pregnant women as their bellies grow, as their babies are born, and as they become mothers. Some of these women are expecting their first babies, while others already have several children. The women share how they accommodated and embraced the stretching work of pregnancy and birth. Haunting, hypnotic music sets the stage for the honest and moving conversations about the changes brought about by motherhood.

The movie evolves organically in a loose chronological fashion, exploring issues related to pregnancy, labor, birth, and finally postpartum adjustment. It feels more like a woman-to-woman chat or therapy session than a "how to" or "why to" film. The women talk openly and spontaneously about their fears, excitements, and emotions as they are becoming mothers. Some of the themes the women address include:
  • Body awareness: learning more about your breasts, vagina, and breathing
  • Preparing siblings to be present for the birth
  • Pain: what it means, what it feels like, how they understand it in the context of birth, how to embrace rather than fight it
  • The emotions of labor
  • Dads/partners talking about their emotional and physical preparations for the new baby
  • Self-awareness: becoming more in tune with yourself, with your fears, and with your thoughts and attitudes
  • The power of positive affirmations and mental discipline in helping you through labor
The Big Stretch is roughly divided into three segments: pregnancy, labor & birth, and postpartum. The birth footage is quite moving. It includes both videos and still shots from the families in the film, plus a montage of many other couples' births, all at home. Surrounded by loved ones, the women labor and birth in a range of upright, mother-chosen positions. Their faces show intense focus and concentration as they are bringing their babies earthside. Then the mood shifts to bliss, ecstasy, transformation, and satisfaction as the mothers and fathers meet their new babies. It's a really powerful re-make of how we imagine and conceptualize the work of birth. Overall, the lessons a viewer would take away from the birth section are that:
  • Birth is intense, rewarding work
  • Birth works better when you embrace, rather than resist
  • Surrender and accept whatever situation arises. In one case, a woman transferred to a hospital after 12 hours of extremely intense labor but no dilation. With the help of the available technologies, including an epidural, she had a joyful vaginal birth after 28 hours of labor.
  • Your emotions and fears can have a dramatic effect on the course of labor
  • Birth just happens all by itself
The third section explores the changes after giving birth and becoming a mother. One woman commented that in the process of having a baby, she grew from a girl into a woman. Birth allowed her to find her solid core, connected her to her body, and gave her the most amazing natural high of her life. Now, when she experiences challenges or doubts, she can tap into the power from the birth.

The women also emphasize the need to ask for and accept help in the postpartum period. If you don't take time to nurture yourself, you will deplete yourself and may face physical as well as emotional obstacles: mastitis, postpartum depression, etc.

The film concludes with advice for women preparing to give birth. The women stress the importance of being conscious about what you want and who you are, of taking control of your pregnancy and birth, of remaining at peace and centered, of tapping into your intuition. You shouldn't worry about the things that you cannot control. Be prepared for birth to surprise you. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Remember too, they counseled, to prepare for what happens after the baby is born; you will need a lot of support as you're learning how to mother your baby. Don't let fear overcome you. One of the fathers remarked, "Birth is one of the greatest athletic feats. We should revere our women."

My thoughts and reactions:
The Big Stretch feels very foreign and exotic to me, a North American viewer. It isn't just the Australian accents, but the totality of the women's environment and appearance. The vegetation is lush and green and filled with plants that don't grow in most places over here. Most of the film was shot outdoors--again, something that simply couldn't happen much of the year here in North America (unless you filmed us in snow boots, snow pants, mittens, hats, scarves and ski parkas!). Many of the women have beautiful tattoos, piercings, brightly colored hair, or artfully disheveled clothing. Most of all, there is a lot of nudity in the film. Not just birth- or breastfeeding-related nudity, but numerous slow shots of pregnant women undressed to varying degrees. At the very end of the film, there's even a scene of a father and two children riding a bike. The kids are clothed, but the father is completely undressed, and you see everything. I am very comfortable with the contextual nudity of birth and breastfeeding. However, some of the nude scenes in the film, although quite beautifully done, seemed to me a bit too much.

I mention this because I am always conscious of audience. This film is wonderful because it isn't preachy or agenda-driven, something really hard to find in birth films. It feels real and honest. However, the extraneous nudity might turn away some people who would really benefit from watching this film.

There was one short scene about vaginal awareness (preparing your vagina for the literal "big stretch" of crowning and birth) that made me giggle. There were funky 1960s-style illustrations of a vagina swirling around while a woman sang "Sacred cave, deep and raw. Step inside, it has no door. Come with me, explore inside. Open heart and open eyes." My husband exclaimed, "Look! It's Monty Python meets the vagina!"

I loved how the film wasn't dogmatic and did not push any certain agenda. In fact, you don't know that the woman are planning natural births--let alone home births--until you actually see them laboring and birthing. The words "natural birth" and "home birth" and "hospital birth" were spoken only once in the film, in passing. Most importantly, I loved how The Big Stretch painted a positive, vibrant, and realistic portrait of the work of pregnancy and birth.

How to purchase:
In Australia: Birthwork ($50 AUD)
In the US/Canada: What Babies Want store ($39.95 USD)


  1. Naked bike riding?! Ouch!

  2. What a fabulous review! The Big Stretch film
    IS like none other!


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