Paula Eiselt spoke with Solzy at the Movies about Aftershock, the new Hulu/Onyx Collective documentary about the maternal health crisis.
Eiselt also tells SATM about her interest in filmmaking, making documentaries, and what challenges come with being a Shomer Shabbos filmmaker. For non-Jewish readers, one who is Shomer Shabbos doesn’t work on Shabbos (Friday evening through an hour past sunset on Saturday night) or the major Jewish holidays.
Aftershock is a very different film from 93Queen even though both films after to do with healthcare. Were your own pregnancy complications a factor in what drew your interest in wanting to tell this story?
Paula Eiselt: Definitely. I guess I’ll start by saying my own experiences, having my children and having traumatic experiences and also, when I say traumatic, just not being seen and heard. I had a second trimester loss. Because of that, I was completely ignored and other stories. Maternal health and women’s empowerment and women’s health is something that’s very important to me, and definitely also informed 93Queen because Ezras Nashim was fighting for dignified health care. We know that dignified care, as Neel Shah says in Aftershock, is not a luxury, it’s how you make people safe. I think that that is a common thread and of course, women coming together to try to fight the injustices within these systems.
In terms of Aftershock, maternal health, as I said, as a mother of my own experiences and then as an artist exploring this work before, I was really drawn to this topic. But it wasn’t until 2017 when Pro Publica came out with a slew of articles really exposing the US maternal mortality crisis to the media that I really understood how horrible this crisis is. We are the most dangerous place in the industrialized world to give birth in, and Black women die three times the rate of white women. I realized that what I had experienced on an individual level affects Black women really, really profoundly and in really high rates. I felt called as a filmmaker and as a person to use whatever skill set I had to uplift these stories. Yeah, I can stop there but I can keep going.
Yeah, I feel like this is longer than a 15 minute conversation, just from having watched the film myself.
Paula Eiselt: Yeah, yeah. I mean, let me know I can—yeah, I can go on so let me know.
You all started filming in late 2019, is that correct?
Paula Eiselt: Yeah, so I guess I’ll take it from—so I decided I really wanted to uplift these stories. I pitched the project to Concordia Studio. I became a fellow there through Rahdi Taylor, who was incredible, and started developing this film, doing deep research, figuring out who are the key players in the movement, what is the latest and really just trying to figure out a way to get into a huge national crisis. What is the story, right? Because there are articles, but that’s not a film. I wanted to, from the start, collaborate, I wanted to co-direct and I was looking for someone that would creatively be a great fit. I already wanted that from the start. But I did start develop again on my own and then at the end of 2019, I was shooting a women’s conference as part of the development of this film and that’s where I met Tonya, the co-director and co-producer on this project. Tonya is an incredible producer, storyteller, leader in her community, and she’s also a women’s and an infant health advocate. She had everything and that I was looking for in a partner so it was really great to meet her.
And then shortly after we met, I saw this call to action on Instagram. Shamony Gibson passed away in October 2019 and in December, her mother, Shawnee, and partner Omari created an event called Aftershock to celebrate her life and also bring the community in conversation about maternal health. She put that up on Instagram, I saw it within the groups I was following and contacted her. From the moment I spoke with her on the phone, I was like, oh my G-d, she is someone so special. This is a story. Everything about her, I could tell just over the phone, how incredible of a person this woman was. I said to Tonya, I think we really need to capture this. Shawnee completely let us in. Her daughter passed and she was already in action and just wanted the world to know what was going on. That was how it really started taking shape was meeting Shawnee and and then of course, we met Omari. When Amber Rose Isaac died in April 2020, Omari reached out to Bruce and that’s how this whole story started. But Shawnee is the guiding light of the film.
What sort of challenges came about because of the pandemic?
Paula Eiselt: The pandemic, I mean, the crazy thing was I was pregnant myself and due in March 2020. We had our own kind of internal—literally internal—deadline that we were working with, and really needed to get the film in a certain place by March 2020. I was going to plan to take time and have Remi, my baby. Because we had that, when the pandemic hit, of course, it was shocking and paralyzing the beginning, but the groundwork was laid there in this kind of divinely miraculous way. Once, after the first few weeks, and I was postpartum and just like trying to get it together, it’s like, we have to continue on with this. We have to figure this out, we just have to. We can’t just let this story stop. We’ve got to move forward.
The first thing we did was get iPhones to all the protagonists at the time so they could start self-documenting. We started shooting outdoors. We shot outdoors as much as we could. We had very small crew, really bare bones, only what was needed. We were testing regularly so we adapted. It was really hard at first. A lot of the events were canceled so we had to pivot. We filmed some Zooms and worked with it but because we had limitations, I think it made us really judicious creatively and made us think out of the box in ways so that’s a silver lining. The thing we had to wait to do was filming the hospitals. Of course, that took a whole—we had to really push that. But we did end up getting everything we needed, thankfully, so it worked out. But it was definitely—we had to be flexible and adapt.
After playing the festival circuit with fests like Sundance and SXSW, how meaningful is it to have the film available to a wider audience on Hulu?
Paula Eiselt: It’s incredible. I mean, the response from Sundance was already really gratifying. We won the Impact for Change award. That’s everything that we’re working for is impact so that was really meaningful. The fact that out of Sundance, Onyx Collective and ABC News Studios bought the film. That was a dream. Working with the women at Onyx is incredible and we felt like that they’re really the best home for this film. The response was amazing.
Now that it’s on Hulu, it’s like another level. I mean, it’s the amount of outreach, the amount of engagement from just this one week is breathtaking. I mean, the conversations happening between women, but institutions, hospitals, insurance companies. We’re planning screenings in tons of these places. Providers really want to talk about this. I’m getting inundated daily with requests. Can we show this to our residents? Can we show this in our medical school? People need to see this. Women, especially Black women, are feeling empowered and validated to have the story out there. I mean, I haven’t even been able to really absorb all of it because it’s so much but I’m just so thrilled that the topic of maternal health and specifically Black maternal health is getting this deserved attention that it needs to get.
How did you first get an interest in filmmaking?
Paula Eiselt: Oh, okay. I go way back. In high school, I saw this movie, which I know you know, called Requiem for a Dream, by Darren Aronofsky. I randomly just picked it up in Blockbuster with my friend. I’m like, let’s just watch this. I was so floored by it and really that film, the elements of the filmmaking that the team behind the filming is so apparent, from the cinematography, to the score, to the acting, to the editing. You really see all the pieces to me. In that moment, I was like, wow, I want to do this and then had to figure out a way to do it. Going to an Orthodox high school, there weren’t many paths to that. I had to blaze my own path. I ended up interning for Darren Aronofsky for three summers and just doing that. I went to NYU Film School and here I am.
What is it that you enjoy about making documentary films and have you ever considered doing a narrative?
Paula Eiselt: Yeah, I mean, I went to film school thinking I was going to do narrative, and I still would like to do that down the line. But I met two of my professors, Marco Williams, who has been a mentor of mine since then—he EP’d 93Queen. He and also Judith Helfand, I took their documentary classes, and I was like, wow, reality really is stranger than fiction. I just really fell in love with a documentary, and then I worked for Marco coming out of NYU, and I just felt pushed in that direction. I’m really passionate about social justice. That fits into to that part of my brand, too.
With making documentaries, is that more conducive for being Shomer Shabbos?
Paula Eiselt: In a way, yes. I think the production periods I’ve worked on right now in a way is a lot more flexible than when you’re on a narrative feature. It’s set, that is it. But in a way, I don’t know. Because in a way, I feel like narrative is so time-bound and so specific, so you do it in this amount of time and then you’re done. Documentary could sometimes be—because it’s flexible—can be never-ending. If I was able to shoot something fully in six weeks and then be done with production, maybe that actually would be somewhat conducive. Yeah, I think so. I think directing—I think when you’re able to direct, you can kind of plan things around. It helps, definitely.
With Aftershock, as opposed to 93Queen, a lot more shoots were over Shabbat or over holidays and I was really grateful to have a co-director that was able to be there when I couldn’t be there. So yeah, I think for me right now, it does make it easier. I can say working with the distribution of this film is that that part sometimes it’s not easy with all of us because you can’t change industry events like that. That’s not flexible at all. I would say the bigger it gets, the harder it gets, I think.
You have no idea how many emails I’ve gotten where press days are just Saturday only and I’m like, I would do this except—
Paula Eiselt: Exactly. There’s no—yes, but I’m grateful because I’m honest with the team and with Onyx and Hulu and what I can do and what I can’t do they’ve been very accommodating to me so I’m really grateful for that. But yeah, Saturday is a big day and not being able to do stuff definitely is hard—really, really hard.
What do you hope people take away from watching the film?
Paula Eiselt: Tonya and I did not set out to make a doom and gloom film so I hope that there’s a lot of empowerment. People feel empowered that there are birthing choices. You can and have the human right to choose with whom you birth and where you birth. Birth is about is about the person who’s birthing. It’s not about anyone else. I hope that women, birthing people, families who are considering that are watching this film feel empowerment. I hope that the institutions—that there’s a sense of accountability, that they really need to fix this system and make room for midwives. We’re the only industrialized country that does not have midwives integrated into our system and that’s because of a whole racist campaign, really starting from 1619 and then extending, obviously, till today—but within the 20th century to eradicate Black midwives, which eradicated midwifery for everyone. We don’t have that in our system so I think there needs to be a reckoning with that. The system needs to make more room for midwives. We need more midwifery schools, and especially for Black midwives that are run by Black midwives. We need more birthing centers. Every other industrialized country has birthing options. If you’re part of the 85%, that’s low-risk, you can birth that way. Even if you’re high-risk, you can still have a really awesome, beautiful birth. I hope that the film is a conversation starter overall that will be used as a tool to help shift our birthing culture.
Thank you so much. It was so nice getting this opportunity to talk over Zoom and I only wish this could have been in person in Park City during Sundance.
Paula Eiselt: Me, too. Thank you, Danielle.
Have a good Shabbos.
Paula Eiselt: You, too. Thanks so much.
Aftershock is now streaming on Hulu.
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.