During the opening sequence of her documentary No Woman No Cry, Christy Turlington admits that she led a pretty charmed life, but something happened the day that she gave birth to her daughter and there were complications: “I went from invincible to powerless.” Though Turlington got medical care and both she and her daughter were fine, she realized how fortunate she was to have access to quality maternity care. The experience sent her on a new kind of journey, not only of motherhood but of a mission to learn about maternal health around the world and try to raise awareness about women’s health issues. Her travels took her from Bangladesh to Guatemala to Tanzania to Washington, DC, where she spent last week screening her film for lawmakers.
The documentary is mostly divided into three neat sections, each focusing on a woman in each of the countries Turlington visited. In Tanzania, we meet a young woman who is pregnant with her third child and has gone to the nearest local clinic trying to get help. However, her needs exceed the capability of the clinic, and the nurses advise her to go to the hospital. She refuses, unable to afford transportation. Turlington and her crew step in, donating the $30 required to hire a van, and the woman delivers the baby at a hospital (where she is also treated for exhaustion and dehydration). In the slums of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, a woman knows that she is able to go to the nearby hospital for care but is afraid to go there because of urban legends that poor women have their babies stolen from them. When she consents to an ultrasound, the doctor snaps at her for not knowing her basic medical information, and that bad experience makes the woman not want to return. (She does, but only because she begins to bleed during labor.) In Guatemala, a trained physician gives up her cushy position to do public health work. In particular, she calls attention to the fact that, because of Guatemala’s strict anti-abortion laws, many women die from unsafe abortions. A woman in the Guatemala City hospital is being treated for complications from a “miscarriage” of a baby conceived by rape. During the six weeks she spends in the hospital, no one from her family visits her.
There’s a lot to digest in No Woman No Cry – in each of the three situations there is a different barrier to proper medical care: money, distance, societal pressure. In between the three sections, there are glimpses of Turlington’s life back in New York. We see home video of her (possibly shot by her husband, filmmaker Ed Burns?) pregnant, laboring, and with her kids. Turlington, who narrates the film, is open about the fact that she’s in a slim minority of women with proper access to maternal care – she even visits a clinic for uninsured women in Florida to hammer home her point that even women in first-world nations still face economic disparity. But by the film’s end, despite the lovely cinematography and compelling characters, I still found myself asking and now what? The film has a lot of questions, but not many answers. Because Turlington intended the film as a way to educate and raise awareness – which it does – it seems that she seemed more interested in sharing stories than in proposing solutions. Other people in the movie get some opportunities to talk about what they would do – a doctor in Guatemala doesn’t come right out and say that abortion should be legal, but he does say that the church should not make decisions for the state, and the woman featured in the Tanzania segment says that her children will be educated because “education saved my life.” Sadly, though, for this woman in Tanzania, it’s someone else’s education that saves her life. And a film about her, which has played to small, hand-selected audiences in New York, Washington, and now Toronto, will serve as someone else’s education.
No Woman No Cry aired as part of the G(irls)20 Summit, and Turlington appeared for a Q&A after the movie. The session cleared up a lot of unanswered questions from the film. For example, the Tanzanian woman had a female companion who traveled to the hospital with her. It turns out that the woman was a sister-wife of the same household, but she was never identified as such in the film. The question of “where were the husbands” was also addressed, with Turlington admitting the men were largely absent from the scene – in the case of the Bangladeshi woman, her husband had traveled to another part of the country to find work, and in Tanzania the husband only appeared at critical moments but was mostly a nonentity. While it was great to have Turlington there in person to illuminate some of the behind-the-scenes parts, if the movie hits wide release (Turlington mentioned that she was working on a TV airing) not every viewer will be able to get Christy Turlington to explain stuff to them. If anything, I think that the film could benefit from an updated edit, which takes some of the viewer feedback into account, or perhaps a short new section at the end which includes Turlington talking about more of the “what happened to these women after the movie ended” parts.
Ultimately, though, the film was a positive experience. It’s clear that, unlike some celebrities who sign up to endorse a cause the same way they would sign up to endorse a lipstick, Turlington has done her homework. Her daughter is now seven years old, which means that Turlington has spent those years going back to college (she’s working on a master’s degree from Columbia University’s school of public health), getting involved in advocacy work, and traveling around the world to witness conditions first-hand. There’s no doubt about her commitment to maternal health advocacy – she even has her own project, Every Mother Counts. Raising awareness is a huge, important first step – but I want to know what happens after the awareness is raised, and I want to know what Turlington hopes those lawmakers who watch her film should do next.