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Childbirth Documentary

The Burden of Birth

A documentary filmed in the delivery room gives an insight into four families going through difficult births, and through them, into the country as a whole

By NewsChina Updated May.1

At the premiere of the documentary This Is Life in early December 2016, director Chen Weijun shared the concept behind his film: the birth of each baby has a sense of ritual and the delivery room contrasts stories of life and death, gains and losses as well as the differences of opinion between the generations. 

Over the past two years, Chen and his production team filmed more than 80 expectant mothers at Wuhan University’s Zhongnan Hospital before selecting four who were facing particularly high-risk pregnancies or births, then followed them to record how their families and the hospital tackled the potentially hazardous circumstances of the deliveries. 

Delivery Room
The film’s main character is Zhang Xiaofeng who married a farmer in northern Hubei Province and, before she had even thought about buying health insurance for herself, became pregnant with twins.  

As Zhang suffers from severe diabetes, she is in danger of going into premature labor. The hospital tells the couple that it will cost roughly 50,000 yuan (US$7,200) to prevent miscarriage and prepare for a possible caesarean section. Zhang’s husband, himself having had a tough life, has been able to scrape together only 5,000 yuan (US$720), of which some is borrowed. Asked by the hospital many times for an upfront payment while being filmed, he does not say a word, instead turning aside to wipe away his tears. Zhang, bedridden, also seldom speaks, preferring to endure in silence and accept her destiny with stoicism, a manner typical of many rural women. 

In order to collect funds for the operation, Zhang’s brother-in-law returns to the village, going door to door in an attempt to borrow enough money from neighbors to be able to book the caesarian at the hospital. The film team follows him throughout the journey observing the neighbors handing over their old, folded banknotes. Most villagers from the remote and impoverished village in Hubei Province work away in urban areas leaving only the old and children behind. 

The producer of the film, Dai Nianwen was particularly taken by Zhang Xiaofeng’s story. What shocked him the most were the simple and sincere relationships among the villagers. At one point, despite his desperate need to borrow money, Zhang’s brother-in-law turns down a loan from a family because they had saved up the money for their son’s wedding. 

As Zhang Tongdao, director of the Documentary Center at Beijing Normal University, sees it, the abject conditions of the four families in the delivery rooms are a test of medical science, economics, ethics and human nature. 

“A father’s mental struggle is no less than Hamlet’s when he has to make decisions around the birth of his children and therefore the saving of their lives,” Zhang Tongdao told the Xinhua News Agency. “When a father has been constantly pushed by a hospital to borrow money to save his children, it is not hard to imagine how much pressure he’s facing.” 

Xia Jinju, another woman who undergoes a difficult birth in the film, is the only character that can give the audience any sense of relief. Because of placenta previa, a complication that can lead to hemorrhage, her pregnancy is also high risk and she stays in bed for a long time to prevent miscarriage. She even finds it hard to turn over on her own. However, Xia remains optimistic and always smiles for the camera.  

Based on years of medical experience, Xia’s doctor, Zhao Jiafu, advises that she have a hysterectomy to remove her womb after the birth, for her own health, but Xia suddenly disagrees when she is about to have the operation. She tells the doctor faintly that she is young and does not want to lose her womb. Xia eventually slips into unconsciousness due to the hemorrhaging and her heart stops beating a number of times before doctors save her. 

Director Chen Weijun got to know Xia during test screening and after watching the footage back, realized that his idea of filming difficult births on the wards would work out and make for a compelling documentary. 


Ju-Kuan Hsiao, the film’s editor, remembers with fondness the first time he met director Chen Weijun, in a cafe in Shanghai in February, 2016. Hsiao, from Taiwan, had worked with a number of famous directors but had not heard of Chen. Their first meeting was arranged by producer Dai Nianwen. 

Hsiao watched clips from Chen’s portfolio and was instantly moved. They were determined to make the film and agreed that it would be a great subject for a documentary that would have huge social significance and resonate with audiences.  

But they had a difference of opinion at first on whether to use music in the film. As an experienced documentary director, from the outset Chen was reluctant to add music and dislikes editing techniques that deliberately heighten suspense with music. Hsiao, however, insisted that music is a great way to seize an audience’s attention. In the end, Chen consented. 

“Chen is easy-going and very modest, unlike many other directors who have a strong desire to dominate,” Hsiao told NewsChina. 

A highlight of the music in the film is the interlude song Mother Loves You, which was produced in memory of the baby of Li Shuangshuang, another of the ladies in the film who carried her baby for nearly 30 weeks. The Healthy Birth Department of the hospital recommends that Li have an abortion because the child is highly likely to be severely disabled. Doctor Zhao Jiafu is reluctant to perform an abortion because the unborn child is still alive and so after consulting with the parents, the baby is delivered through caesarean section. The child lives for just a few days and Chen included a nine-second clip of the baby in the film.  

“The song was composed for the child,” said producer Dai Nianwen. “Every life is worthy of being remembered and every child deserves the love of its mother,” Dai told NewsChina. 

Unlike many outspoken and even aggressive film directors, Chen Weijun, 47, is reticent and reluctant to talk about himself. After graduating from Sichuan University in 1992, he found his first job at Wuhan Television in Hubei Province. In 1994, he made his first documentary, about a philosophy professor at Wuhan University. In making the documentary, he was deeply moved by the words of philosopher Deng Xiaomang: “My philosophy is based on my life.” These words, Chen said, had a lasting impact on him, particularly on his artistic production. 

“If you want to produce a good documentary film [on any subject], you need to find a girlfriend, marry, and have a child. Otherwise, your feelings will be incomplete,” Chen said. 

Chen made his name in documentary-making with his work To Live Is Better Than To Die, a film about the daily life of a family in rural Henan Province who became infected with HIV. The documentary scooped several awards internationally. In 2007, Chen’s documentary film Please Vote For Me, telling the story of elementary school elections for class monitor, was one of the 15 works shortlisted for the 2007 Oscar for documentary feature. 

After many years of making films, Chen now suffers from numbness in his hands and lung diseases. Chen once said that if possible, he would prefer not to film again because of the physical and mental pressures. 

As for the box office, the film, officially released on December 16, 2016, had to compete with a number of commercial blockbusters including director Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall and The Wasted Times, featuring the stars Ge You and Zhang Ziyi. Chen said that he did not care too much about the box office and refused to accept that “documentary” is a synonym for “boredom.” 

“A good story should be accessible to both high- and low-brow audiences. I appreciate human stories that can make an audience laugh and cry,” Chen said. “Hospitals are both the origin and end of life and, as a matter of course, a good movie about hospitals is also a good movie about Chinese people.”