We’re delighted that Still Loved won the ‘Best Documentary’ award at High Peak Independent Film Festival this weekend. With tough competition from some other feature docs, we’re thrilled to have been honoured with this award, giving recognition to the film and also to stillbirth and baby loss.
Big thanks to Festival Director Nicole Pott and her team at HPIFF 2017 for their hard work and hospitality at this festival.
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.
I set up Big Buddha Films ten years ago and have made many short films, both fiction and documentary. My latest short film, Peekaboo, was about stillbirth. When I finished it I knew I wanted to make a feature documentary about baby loss as it was something I had become very passionate about. So I started work on Still Loved.
I now realise the enormity of that decision. For a first time feature documentary maker to make a film about one of the society’s biggest taboos was no small task. There is so much stigma around baby loss. No wants to talk about it even though one in four pregnancies end in a loss. We dealt with closed doors from the industry all along the way. We were continuously told, “There is no interest in this subject.” This shocked me. I think the point of documentaries is to educate and challenge attitudes, to make change. But I didn’t give up.
Four years later and we are now releasing Still Loved into cinemas across the UK in October, during Baby Loss Awareness Month. We have a Distributor onboard CatnDocs and we screen at our first two film festivals in November. We have made a powerful, sensitive, thought-provoking film that I am very proud of.
We shot Still Loved over 3 years working closely with seven families. Most of the film was shot on a Sony PMW 200. Our DoP, Emma Dalesman did an incredible job. For scenes that needed a certain look we used a Canon C300 with sliders and macro lenses and a Sony FS7. We also used a drone and Go Pro’s and some of the contributors also self shot on small video cameras and phones for a much more personal feel.
We filmed close-up intimate shots of the babies items on motion control with Charlie Paul at Itch Studio. They specialise in working with documentary filmmakers and have a truly creative approach to examining and treating memorabilia, photos, archive film and materials in an innovative way to tailor a unique style for each of the films they work on. Charlie used a DSLR camera with long focal length macro lenses mounted on the rig. He shot high resolution time-lapse sequences which allowed us to move the camera at exceptionally slow speeds with shallow depth of field and long exposure shutter speeds.
Still Loved was beautifully edited by Joby Gee and the Supervising Sound Editor was George Foulgham. Post production was completed at Molinare, London.
The tragedy of one in four pregnancies is that it ends in a loss which can include miscarriage, ectopic pregnancies and stillbirths.
But the stigma of talking about the death of babies means that parents are suffering in silence.
International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day falls on October 15, and it’s a time when those who have lived through the pain of losing their child at birth hope their stories will give strength to others.
Mum Lou’s son says that her first child, a son named Finley, was 10 weeks premature and spent a long period in the neonatal unit.
“I had this feeling of doom,” she says. “As the pregnancy progressed I was more more and depressed and more and more anxious.”
On January 9, 2009, when Lou was 36 weeks pregnant she suddenly became aware that he was in a lot of pain in her abdomen coming in waves.
Believing she had gone into labour, she leaped up and thought her waters broke. Running upstairs to tell her husband, Matt, she said: “The baby’s coming, the baby’s coming.”
He turned to her and, Lou says: “My jeans were soaked in blood.”
Lou says she was in a state of denial and was laughing and joking with the paramedics, but she was really in shock about what was happening.
She wasn’t the only one struggling with the horrific reality: “Something in Matt just snapped. He was like a wild animal. He was howling, thumping his head, thumping the walls.
“For the moment, I forgot the terrible labour pain I was in and the midwife had to focus on him.”
Matt said he had to leave and apologised to Lou.
She recalls: “The only saving grace of it was that my labour with Lauren was very brief and because she had only died a few hours before she was born, her appearance was not of a baby who had died.
“She just looked a little bit paler than normal, but it really just was of a baby who was asleep.”
Lou is just one of seven mums – and dads – who have shared their tragic stories with the makers of a new documentary which examines those families who have heartbreak visited upon them when a baby is stillborn.
Called Still Loved, the film – released to coincide with Baby Loss Awareness Month – follows seven couples, showing their stories of stillbirth and providing a profound insight into the effects of the death of a baby.
The documentary, from Big Buddha Films , gives a voice to all those affected, from bereaved mothers to often-overlooked fathers, many of whom open up about their experience for the first time ever on camera.
This is a brave, inclusive and important film for all, not just those with first-hand experience of baby loss.
Beth and Steve tell the heartbreaking story of the loss of Felicity and Harriet, their twins – although, when they first found out Beth was pregnant: “We had no idea that our little miracle was actually two.”
On July 2, 2012, while staying in Yorkshire, Beth went into labour at 21 weeks, and the babies did not survive.
“There was no hope for either of them,” Beth remembers. “You could see on the scan they were struggling.”
“[Medical staff] came in to explain our options. We could either wait for contractions to come on or they needed to induce so that I was OK. The induction is essentially an abortion, and that’s what they made me sign for.”
The babies were born together, which Beth says “gave us a bit of comfort”.
Beth adds: “I am a mum and [Steve’s] a dad, but we don’t have any children.”
Couple Juliette and Matt were thrilled when they found out that they were expecting a boy, and say the pregnancy was not a difficult one.
Ben was stillborn on November 26 weighing 6lbs.
“Small but perfectly formed, we like to say,” Juliette smiles.
Although she spent time with Ben and bathed him, Matt admits it was something he stepped back from.
“I couldn’t be there for that, I said to myself ‘I don’t think I can cope with that’. I went outside and spoke to my parents.
“To this day, I regret not doing that.
“We had four hours with Ben, which was lovely.”
Juliette adds: “You find yourself making a lifetime of memories in a very very short space of time.”
Following the loss, Matt admits he ‘felt a lot of anger’ and was expected just to get on with his life regardless.
Still Loved is supported by Tommy’s, the baby charity which funds research into stillbirth, miscarriage and pregnancy complications.
The film’s director Debbie Howard says that despite the taboos surrounding stillbirths, “the parents were very happy to finally have a voice”.
“When a baby dies, it’s still a baby. It’s still a child that is loved, cherished and wanted.
“Parents feel they can’t talk about their baby because other people don’t know how to cope with it.”
Debbie says that it wasn’t hard to find families who wanted to share their stories, and we should encourage this openness.
“We’re really bad at talking about death and grief in our society, we’re closed about that sort of thing. And it’s massively heightened when it comes to the death of a baby.
“People don’t know the statistics and they fail to realise that it’s someone’s child who has died, someone’s baby.
“You’ve thought about names, talked about them with their siblings, you’ve thought about and planned future events, and then your child dies.”
Debbie says that a pregnancy is no guarantee that parents will end up with a live baby, and the statistics show that their are many parents like those in the documentary.
“The anticipation means people have decorated nurseries, bought clothes and pushchairs, and then are left with all that stuff. It’s heartbreaking.
“What do you do with all that stuff after the baby is gone?
“And what does it mean if it was your first child – you ask yourself ‘am I a mum or a dad?’, ‘am I a parent if my baby has not survived?’.”
The film has a digital release on November 1. For further information, visit the website .
Next week sees the release of Still Loved, a groundbreakingly honest documentary exploring baby loss. One of the parents in the film, Bethany Morris, shared her story with us.
Posted on 23/09/2016
“It’s OK, you can have another one.”
Those were the words that are so often uttered by means of consolation to families who’ve lost a child or children during pregnancy. Perhaps before we lost our precious twins, Harriet and Felicity, I might have unwittingly used them myself, had I been faced with a situation of baby loss. But hearing those words not a week after our loss made me realise something. They made me realise that the loss of a baby is a lonely, desolate experience. Nobody seems to understand or dare to try.
If, like ours, a baby is lost before it is born, to most people that baby doesn’t seem real, as they didn’t know it as a person. They had not spent months planning a future for their bump, they hadn’t agonised over names, they hadn’t seen that baby come to life on an ultrasound screen, talked to the bump, felt it kick, played it music.
To them it was merely a bump, a bump that can be replaced. Funny, isn’t it: if someone’s brother, mother, friend died, you wouldn’t tell them it’s OK, you can have another, would you?
“One in four pregnancies results in a loss and every day just in the UK 10 families are devastated by stillbirth. We should not have felt so alone in our loss, but we did.”
After giving birth to my silent little girls, it was this loneliness that I found so hard. I couldn’t be with my friends anymore; I was scared to leave the house in case I saw other babies or pregnant women; I couldn’t even be with my family as their lives were continuing while mine felt as though it had fallen in to a dark pit.
But my girls made me find the strength. I refused to be quiet; I didn’t want to pretend they weren’t real. As they were born before 24 weeks they didn’t get a birth certificate. Technically they never even existed, so I wanted to make sure people knew about them and how special they were. To talk about them, to make their lives matter, even if that made people uncomfortable.
It was this need to create a legacy for my daughters, a need to make their voices heard and their lives matter that led my husband and I to share our experience as part of the Still Loved film. To break the silence of baby loss. The film is an uplifting story celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and exploring the complexity and reality for families surviving baby loss.
One in four pregnancies results in a loss and every day just in the UK 10 families are devastated by stillbirth (loss after 24 weeks). We should not have felt so alone in our loss, but we did.
By sharing the very personal journeys of a number of families through grief, despair, determination and hope, the production company Big Buddha Films is giving a voice to this important issue and by doing so, we hope, making people more aware and more understanding.
Through our work on the film and through social media I found others who knew how this felt. Others who could help me see that one day there would be light again. People who helped my husband and I create a voice for Hattie and Flic and to spend our lives raising money to help prevent other babies being lost.
Our daughters have made me who I am now, and I am grateful to them for showing how to treasure what really matters. Please support your local screening of Still Loved and help us break the silence of baby loss. It is a story of hope in adversity and it may prepare you to have real empathy one day if you need to.
Still Loved will be in cinemas from 4 October and available on digital from 1 November. October is Baby Loss Awareness Month.
The documentary features seven families coming to terms with their grief
Those behind the documentary say these deaths ‘are hidden from society, stigmatised and silent’ and the film aims to overcome the silence by ‘showing parents’ stories of stillbirth and by providing an accessible, original and profound insight into the effects of the death of a baby’.
Still Loved is the debut feature from Debbie Howard, who has previously directed a string of short films that have screened at international film festivals and secured a number of prestigious awards.
She said: “Still Loved brilliantly gives a voice to all those affected, from bereaved mothers to often-overlooked fathers, many of whom open up about their experience for the first time ever on camera.
“This is a brave, inclusive and important film for all, not just those with first-hand experience of baby loss.”
The documentary is supported by Tommy’s, the baby charity which funds research into stillbirth, miscarriage and pregnancy complications.
Dr Alex Heazell, director of Tommy’s Stillbirth Research Centre at St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, said: “The subject matter of Still Loved is emotionally challenging – it should be, this is not a film to make the viewer feel comfortable.
“To make progress, we must break the silence, the stigma and the taboo that surrounds the death of a baby. Still Loved begins this process – it provides an accessible, original and profound insight into the effects of the death of a baby.”
The release of the film coincides with Baby Loss Awareness Month throughout October, and International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day on October 15.
Debbie, founder of Big Buddha Films, said: “The parents were very happy to finally have a voice. When a baby dies, it’s still a baby.
“It’s still a child that is loved, cherished and wanted. Parents feel they can’t talk about their baby because other people don’t know how to cope with it.”
Still Loved is on at AMC Cinema in Manchester at 7.30pm on Tuesday, October 4.
Ten years ago next February, my friends Tim and Laura had their first daughter, Charlotte. They had three daughters after her, Emily, Isabelle and Florence, who never knew their big sister, as she died at 41 weeks of gestation. I will never forget Charlotte’s funeral: the roses on the coffin, the rows of old friends holding each other tightly by the hands. It seemed unimaginable that this could have happened to our two lovely friends, and shocking to find, all these years later, how common an experience stillbirth still is.
Ten babies are stillborn every day in Britain; in 2014, the last year for which there are Office of National Statistics figures, this amounted to 3,563 deaths. Just as shockingly, Britain ranks 21st out of 35 of the world’s wealthy nations in terms of its stillbirth rates, and there is a stark variation in those rates across the country (it differs from 4.1 to 7.1 out of 1,000 births, with Black and Asian women being more at risk, as well as women living in poverty). The reasons babies die are frustratingly hard to pin down. Placental problems in late pregnancy is one issue, which is not currently checked in routine antenatal monitoring. A third of stillbirths remain “unexplained”, with more investment to find out why being desperately needed.
Nevertheless, the subject of stillbirth, and wider issues surrounding neonatal injury and safety, are starting to be discussed in much more prominent places. Next week, they are being debated in parliament for the first time during Baby Loss Awareness Week, thanks in part to two MPs: Antoinette Sandbach, whose 5-day-old son, Sam, died in 2009, and Will Quince, whose second child, Robert, was stillborn in 2014.
Baby loss is also being explored on the big screen in director Debbie Howard’s new documentary, Still Loved, which takes us through three years in the lives of seven families who lost children before or shortly after birth. It is an important, bracing film, and refreshingly gives lots of screen-time to the fathers as well as mothers who are grieving. This is vital: it reminds the world that stillbirth is not an experience to be suffered quietly by the person who carried the baby. Stillbirth is an experience shared, and indeed it should be shared.
Howard knew she had to make Still Loved after making a short film drama about the subject in 2013: this was Peekaboo, starring BAFTA-award-winning actor Lesley Sharp. “I’d spoken to so many people around their experiences while making [Peekaboo], I knew I’d barely scratched the surface of the subject,” she explains. “The stigma and silence I found around losing babies was incredible – so many people felt like they couldn’t talk about what they’d gone through, because it made other people uncomfortable. This just meant their grief got internalised. That didn’t help.”
They told me about their trip to hospital together, with Laura in labour, not knowing that a heartbeat wouldn’t be found
Howard’s film shows us how many different people have had these experiences too. There’s the couple who lost their twins before 24 weeks, the single mother whose partner’s mother blamed the stillbirth on evil spirits, and the fathers who felt pressure to be strong and silent while feeling anything but. We meet the amazing Michelle and Nicky, who have set up the brilliant Campaign for Safer Births, after negligence in medical care ended the lives of their babies. We hear of couples whose friends no longer ring them, or are told unhelpful things like “you can always have another”. I remember feeling the hopelessness of saying anything as a friend of Tim and Laura; with hindsight, I know that simply offering your love as a friend is so much better than saying nothing.
When I was asked to mark Baby Loss Awareness Week by writing this piece, I emailed Tim and Laura to ask them what they would want me to say. I realise now how nervous I was about getting things wrong. Their responses made me so amazed and proud of both of them – and I’ve realised here is where the message of this film lives.
They both told me the story of Charlotte in detail, and about how they wanted to share it, to remember her short time in the world. They told me about their trip to hospital together, with Laura in labour, not knowing that a heartbeat wouldn’t be found. They told me how lucky they were with their medical team, who arranged Charlotte’s funeral, and came to see them in hospital when Emily was born; the NHS rising to the occasion as it can so often, brilliantly, do.
They also told me of the cruel things that stuck in their minds, hoping others won’t have to face them again. For Tim, there was the “helpful” leaflet that told him to “think of the grandparents that feel helpless as they see the devastation their children are going through”; this instruction only devastated him further. For Laura, it was hearing people say things like “it’s not as like you knew them”. She knew her. “The best thing to do is talk to people who know how you’re feeling,” Laura concluded.
Baby Loss Awareness Week and Still Loved will keep this message soaring this month, giving voices to those people who need them most – and reminding those of us who haven’t suffered, like our friends have, to use our voices too. “We are proud of who we are because of Charlotte,” Tim he told me, “and that she was in our life.” She was in their lives, and she is, and will always be.
Still Loved is now in cinemas and will be available on digital from 1 November (@StillLovedDoc). If you or anyone you know wishes to know more or seek support about stillbirths, please contact Tommy’s or Sands.