Christy Turlington made her name as a supermodel - but has since become a published author, entrepreneur, magazine editor and advocate. Recently, she made her directorial debut with the film No Woman, No Cry, which premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The 60-minute documentary is an intimate look at the global issue of maternal health, a subject on the agenda of the upcoming G8/G20 Summits.
No Woman, No Cry screens today in Toronto as part of the G(irls) 20 Summit, a gathering of 21 young women from around the world organized by the Belinda Stronach Foundation.
Filmed on location in four countries, No Woman, No Cry follows a pregnant women on her five-mile walk to a remote health clinic, only to be turned away; a midwife in Florida who tends to patients without health insurance; and an obstetrician who treats women after botched illegal abortions.
Ms. Turlington spoke with The Globe and Mail.
The film opens with the birth of your daughter, and the trauma you experienced with a sudden hemorrhage during labour. How did becoming a mother change your perspective on the issue of maternal health?
It was an evolution. At first I thought I'd become a natural birth advocate. But in the months following, I talked about the experience with friends who'd also had complications, and I started to connect those dots. Hemorrhages are a leading cause of maternal death in the U.S. When I discovered that I thought, "How is this possible?" It was also the leading cause of maternal death 100 years ago.
Then I started to travel with CARE [the international humanitarian organization] and I went to Central America, where my mother is from. I travelled there when I was six months pregnant with my son, my second child. I spent time with other expecting moms and many with newborns. They'd meet to gather clean water, but used the opportunity to educate each other through shared experiences. When I went home to deliver my son I continued to think about these women, wondering if they were okay. Being pregnant in a developing country, that was the catalyst moment.
You travelled to Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala, and also filmed in the United States. Why did you focus on women from these four parts of the world?
Each country represents a different barrier - geography, culture, law and bureaucracy. I wanted to show this as a global tragedy and obviously it's important to go where the need is the highest, and there is extreme need in sub-Saharan Africa. But you can tell this story in any country. I instinctively knew it was important to tell more than one continent's story. Latin America often gets forgotten in discussions and maternal health development. I went to places I thought could prevent this from happening. Why wait until it gets really bad?
Your film is a very intimate, character-driven narrative. You spend several weeks in each location, following women at risk of becoming a statistic. At one point, your crew offers their help to a woman in labour. How did you balance your role as director with the desire to intervene in the lives of these women?
We went in knowing that, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, there was a chance of someone really needing help. We knew that we did not want to watch a woman die. I've seen other films where it's really triage, and they do show that loss.
There was a powerful piece in Time last week by Lynsey Addario, about Sierra Leone, which is one of the worst places to give birth. She filmed a woman who died. She was reporting and photo documenting the whole story. You can hear it in her voice as she's recording a video, "Oh my god, that woman is bleeding a lot, is she okay?!" I didn't need to be the person to tell that kind of story. In my film, I wanted to show what was possible and be hopeful about what can happen.
I was so prepared to deliver a baby if i needed to! And I've never done that before. We didn't need to see anyone suffer.
Speaking of ways to help, world leaders will soon be gathering at the G20 Summit, where maternal health is on the agenda. How can they resolve this issue when they are so removed from the reality of the situation?
As a student of public health [a second year Master's student at Columbia University's Mailman School in New York] I'm a peer of people trying to find those solutions. Something happens when you get into the bureaucracy. Communication becomes only peer-to-peer.
With the film, I hope to help bring people from civil society into these conversations. But knowing things like the limitations of funding - it's hard to transcend those things. With maternal health on the G8 agenda, that is a tremendous accomplishment.
We have another five years [before the United Nations Millennium Development Goal]to reduce the maternal mortality rate to 75 per cent. I've already seen the impact of the film at Tribeca on moms and families. Now it's about political leaders and people getting together, a joint action plan.
Watch the trailer for No Women, no cry
This interview has been condensed and edited.