On the 30th May, Women in Film and TV UK featured an interview with Director, Debbie Howard about the making of her feature documentary, Still Loved.
We all know that getting a film made is not easy. But once you’ve achieved that part, what about the Herculean effort needed to get it out into the world?
Over the last few years WFTV has been keeping a keen eye on the progress of Still Loved, the debut feature-length documentary from former WFTV mentee Debbie Howard (above centre). The film explores the complex reality for families surviving baby loss. It’s a brave and moving documentary but – because of its challenging subject matter – it’s not an easy sell.
Undeterred, Debbie has used a number of different strategies to build an audience for the film and make sure its important message does not go unheard. So WFTV decided to catch up with her shortly after Still Loved‘s DVD release to find out how she’s done it and what tips she would pass on to fellow-filmmakers trying to get their film seen.
“From the very beginning I was told repeatedly not to make this film. People said ‘There is no audience. People won’t watch it. It’s too sad.’”
You can read the full article on the WFTV UK website here.
Why is stillbirth such a conversation stopper in a society that sees 7,000 babies born dead every day? That’s the question posed in a vital new feature documentary called Still Loved, which investigates the meagre support system provided to the families affected by this issue, giving them a much-needed voice.
Three years in the making, the film begins with a candle-lit vigil on International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day commemorating these children, attended by the parents and siblings who have experienced the tragedy of stillbirth. Comprising interviews that expose the emptiness and loneliness that these parents felt following their heartbreaking ordeals, director Debbie Howard seeks to offset the deafening silence that characterises their experiences. By doing so, she reveals a shocking negligence of support both professionally and personally over a topic stigmatised by what the stiff upper-lip’s of this world dub embarrassing emotionality.
Still Loved demonstrates that the physical loss of a baby is not considered in conjunction with the mental support these parents urgently need in order to cope with the passing of a child they’d created, developed a relationship with, and who had died in the hours it was anticipated that he or she would be welcomed into the world. More than a lack of closure, there is a distinct lack of compassion for the unexpected and often sudden news that their baby won’t survive, even down to definitions. One woman’s birth was signed off as an abortion, another as a stillbirth when medical negligence was the true culprit.
Hope, however, prevails, as it follows the families in their recovery, documenting the different coping mechanisms they individually apply. One starts a charity, one chairs a charity, one refuses to have another child. The process of moving on is hard, but we witness that too, as the families continue to honour their offspring’s memory. In a time of celebrating an exciting new hello, stillbirth is a poignant, shattering goodbye, and Still Loved rights a wrong in educating audiences on the importance of treating the subject with the action and compassion it deserves.
Released to coincide with Baby Loss Awareness week, Debbie Howard’s documentary hears out bereaved parents across the UK, talking with remarkable candour about their experiences of stillbirth. If the early crosscutting elides some of each case’s specificity, it succeeds in describing a more general arc, from horror and numbness to acceptance and a resolution to move forwards – either by trying to conceive again or investing creative energies in alternative projects. The process confronts us with undeniably tough material: the snapshots of the deceased sting as much as the pans across the box-fresh bibs and bootees bought in excited anticipation of the big day. (The whole film is a fleshing out of the six-word story typically attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) Yet you can only be struck by the resilience the interviewees display, and the trust they place in Howard – repaid several times over by a work of commemoration that will also surely provide considerable consolation.
It remains one of society’s few taboo subjects, but now a documentary hopes to explain the impact of stillbirth and bring greater understanding to an experience that often remains hidden.
Still Loved, the first feature-length film to tackle the issue, will be screened at selected cinemas throughout the UK in October. Its director, Debbie Howard, hopes that the film will not only speak to those who have suffered a loss but strip away some of society’s preconceptions about how we deal with these deaths.
“I had two different friends who lost babies and I was really affected by the profound effect it had on them,” she says. “Initially, I made a short fictional film on the subject but as I did the research and spoke to families I realised there was so much to say that it would be better as a documentary. I knew the subject matter was challenging but I felt very passionately about giving parents a voice.”
Shot over three years, the often harrowing but ultimately hopeful documentary follows a handful of parents as they discuss their experiences with an at times brutal candour, laying bare both how it feels to be told that your child has died and, crucially, how and if you can find your way back to some semblance of normality. There are scenes of despair but also of bittersweet joy as families remember their babies in moving ceremonies or conceive again.
“One of the things no one ever says about stillbirth is how it affects every area of your life,” says Mel Scott, an occupational therapist from Somerset whose baby, Finley, died during labour. “I felt really isolated after Finley died. My husband had to go back to work and I was on maternity leave but with no baby.”
Making it worse was the assumption that the grief would soon pass. “It makes me cross when people say grief has a time and you should get over it,” she says. “Life might get bigger and brighter around the pain but it’s still there.”
Lou Evans, a physiotherapist from Derbyshire, agrees. “When Lauren died I wanted the whole world to know how much pain I was inand how much I continued to be in even as the years passed,” she says. “A lot of my friends and even my husband, Matt, couldn’t always understand that. They didn’t see why the time I spent at Lauren’s grave or working with the local branch of [stillbirth charity] Sandswas therapeutic. I do think people sometimes wanted me to be quiet.”
That opinion – that those who have experienced stillbirth should grieve in silence – is still common, and Howard believes it is why she initially struggled to get the film off the ground.
“I had one very established documentary maker tell me I absolutely think this film should be made but nobody will want to show it and nobody will watch it,” she says. “It was even tough getting the cinemas on board – they would say there’s no interest, and I’d get quite annoyed and write back saying how do you know that? I didn’t think it was true.”
Michelle Hemmington, whose son, Louie, died as a result of medical negligence, believes that Howard has got the balance between honest and hopeful just right. “The film’s strength is that it isn’t overly sad,” she says. “The subject is difficult but the emotions are positive.”
The film is similarly strong in its depiction of fathers, who are often ignored in the rush to ensure that the mother is cared for. “One of the big problems is that there isn’t really anything for dads,” says Matt Grove, who admits he struggled on returning to work as a police officer. “After Ben died I went for counselling, and people were almost surprised that there was a dad there.”
Grove hopes Still Loved will reach a wide audience. “If people take one thing away it is that they should always check the baby’s movement and not worry about bothering the doctors if they feel something is wrong,” he says. “If this film manages to save lives, it will be worth it.”
Still Loved is being screened as part of International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.
The subject of death is one which Western society still struggles with discussing frankly. This is partly due to its depressing nature but also because for most death of a loved one is too raw an experience to share openly. This is especially true with the death of the young and even more so with stillbirth. Debbie Howard’s new documentary Still Loved is a moving piece that explores this and broaches stillbirth with great sensitivity. Its focus is on a number of couples who have faced the trauma of having a stillborn child or children.
This is Howard’s first full length documentary, following the success of a few short films including Peekaboo (2012) and Pussy (2009). Howard’s film reflects her talent as a storyteller but also as a film maker. It is an extremely poignant piece which encapsulates the difficult emotional and physical journey couples face who’ve experienced stillbirth. As someone whose sister Jennifer was stillborn, this film really struck a chord with me but it helped me understand the pain my parents would have felt. It is an extremely important film, not just because it tackles such a widely misunderstood and often disregarded subject but also the powerful messages behind each interviewee’s story. The film utilises the parcipatory style of documentary film making, with couples showing with their experiences how they have coped and how they’ve been affected by the experience. These key aspects covered such as the paternal grief felt and toxic masculinity expectations, fallout of friendships and the fact that in most cases the lost babies have siblings who are also affected. Howard intertwines these with the overarching subject. These are all vital points of consideration in the important pursuit of helping those families affected by stillbirth.
Still Loved is difficult viewing at times, naturally, because of the content but it is a documentary and these truths deserve to be heard. These are real people who have made the choice to share their difficult stories, to help their grieving process but also to inform people about still birth. Howard’s film is not without hope. These people may have lost their children but the film shows how they’ve found other ways to cope with the grief and enjoy life. These scenes of joy juxtapose their struggles and culminate in a film which balances understanding the pain of stillbirth whilst offering new optimism. It is really touching to see the outcome for some of these people and their strength and courage. Whilst the lost loved will not always preoccupy their minds they will always be still loved.
Dir: Debbie Howard
Scr: Debbie Howard
DOP: Debbie Howard
Run Time: 70 Mins
Still Loved is on limited release in cinemas as part of Baby Loss Awareness Month
They also did an interview with Director, Debbie Howard. You can read this here.
Our documentary, Still Loved, was reviewed in The Lancet today. Written by Alice Jolly.
You can read the full review here but you need to register to access the full article.
Or read below:
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.