Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, co-directors of Aftershock on Hulu, about coming together to talk about one of the most dangerous epidemics in the United States.
Co-directors Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee both experienced different sparks that led to collaboration on their Hulu doc Aftershock, which tackles the subject of maternal mortality rates in the United States.
For Eiselt, a mother and filmmaker, she was affected by ProPublica’s 2017 Lost Mothers series.
“[After reading that series] I really understood that the U.S. was the most dangerous place in the industrialized world to give birth and that black women die three times more than white women. When I read that and read those stories, I was completely floored. I realized what I had experienced on an individual level was in fact really profoundly affecting black women and that we were in crisis.”
For Lewis Lee, since 2007, she had traveled the country as a spokesperson for an infant mortality awareness campaign.
“I traveled the country and was hearing anecdotally from women—because when you talk about an infant’s health, you’re talking about a woman’s health—about women dying from childbirth complications. Everybody Black knows somebody who’s died from a childbirth complication and you don’t necessarily realize it.”
Lewis Lee had done a small film on the infant mortality issue and wanted to focus her storytelling skills on the maternal mortality crisis, while Eiselt was looking for a partner to wrangle this huge national epidemic with.
“We both came at it from different ways, but with a shared vision and passion for maternal health,” says Eiselt.
“We wanted to tell this story through the lived experience of people but at the same time bring in the information,” says Lewis Lee. “We wanted to humanize the statistics behind the story.”
Meet Shamony Gibson
The documentary immediately immerses you in the lives of these statistics, first by showing videos of Shamony Gibson. In the opening sequence of the film, you watch Shamony meet the love of her life, become pregnant, and then become pregnant again, before unexpectedly passing away due to medical negligence.
“It was really important for us to meet Shamony,” says Lewis Lee. “Someone who had a very vibrant, full, wonderful life, a healthy woman, with a partner and a mother and sister and community behind her. We wanted people to meet her alive and vibrant, so that they, too, by the time we got to the story, felt the impact of her loss.”
Someone who never expected her loss was her mother Shawnee Benton-Gibson, an activist who was aware of the statistics but never thought her daughter would become one because of this awareness. Eiselt remarks how much of an amazing resource Benton-Gibson was for the film.
“Shawnee is our guiding light on and off screen. She’s the core of the film. We met Shawnee a mere two months after Shamony passed, and that’s when Shawnee and Omari put on the event Aftershock, which is the namesake of the film, to commemorate Shamony’s life and also gather the community to talk about maternal health. From Shawnee, we met Omari; from Omari, we met Bruce. She started the chain reaction of the stories that we capture in the film. Like Tonya said, we want to humanize the statistics; it’s about the people. Without Shawnee, maybe it’s an article, but not a film. Shawnee made Aftershock a film.”
Maternal Mortality Rates in Tulsa
Eiselt and Lewis Lee head to Tulsa, the U.S. city with the highest maternal mortality rate, and introduce us to Felicia, an expectant mother who’s looking for the best delivery options. In a climactic scene, Felicia gives birth in a birthing center, in what could be one of the most beautiful delivery scenes in film in recent memory. How did they pull that off?
“We were so lucky that Felicia allowed us into such an intimate moment of her life,” says Lewis Lee. “She, like the other protagonists in the film, wanted to share her experience so other women could see what is possible. Luckily, she had an amazing birth.”
Since Eiselt and Lewis are not based in Oklahoma and couldn’t be there to capture the birth, they had a doula/videographer in the room to document it.
“Our doula videographer was on call, waiting. And it’s wonderful that she’s a doula, because not only was she there and has such a beautiful eye—that natural light is just so gorgeous—but she was also there as another support person in the room. It was great for us to have the right person in the room for that very intimate situation. I know Felicia appreciated having someone in the room who understood—put the camera down at this point, bring it back at this point.”
In addition to Felicia, Eiselt and Lewis Lee also followed other birth stories that didn’t make it into the film, all stemming from lack of access to good and trustworthy care, with these stories showing how the system can squeeze people and have them make certain decisions. Tulsa proved to be just as complicated as the statistics show.
“Felicia initially was going to give birth in the hospital, and then she pivoted her birth plan and decided to give birth in a birth center. The institution she was going to birth at—the tone there was definitely different in terms of talking about racism and the maternal mortality crisis. When we were speaking to some of the doctors, they didn’t even want to say that we were in crisis in this country. The lack of openness and awareness and the denial or lack of wanting to come to terms with the way the system is systemically racist, was definitely felt in Tulsa.”
The Impact of Aftershock
At the end of the film, Eiselt and Lewis Lee show that there’s still work to be done, with the protagonists like Shawnee Benton-Gibson continuing to do the work that her daughter would have been so proud of.
“Our protagonists are very busy, and there’s been a really great reception for the film,” says Eiselt. “We hope that leads to meaningful change. At one of our last screenings, we did have a provider come up and say that because of this film, she will ask different questions to patients, and we’ve gotten similar [responses] along the way. Those are lives that are saved. There’s no doubt that because of this film, we will be saving lives. Whether it’s going to affect a national swell, I really, really hope so. We’ll see.”
Lewis Lee points to 2022’s Dobbs decision [Roe v. Wade reversal] as a reason why Aftershock is more urgent than ever.
“I remain optimistic. There was a moment when I was really feeling down about it, but with this midterm election that just happened, I do feel like we’re seeing the backlash of that Dobbs decision. The conversation is happening with the people who can make some change and be accountable. That’s a positive. The conversation is happening. We’d like to see a shift in culture in the way we think and talk about birthing across the board in the United States.”
Aftershock is available to stream on Hulu.