Sally Carter on maternal health – with a touch of glamour

Eighteen months ago I had my first child, and ever since I’ve loved listening to other people’s birth stories – long, short, blissful, or terrifying – I’m all ears. I got a ticket as soon as I saw the London Film Festival was showing No Woman, No Cry, a 60 minute documentary about maternal health directed by the model Christy Turlington Burns. Did it help that that the film was short and Ms Turlington Burns would be taking part in a panel discussion afterwards? Absolutely – an hour isn’t long however harrowing the subject matter, and I’ve never seen a world famous model in the flesh.

The film was introduced by Sarah Brown, global patron of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, and wife of the former UK prime minister, Gordon Brown. After the screening a panel, including Christy Turlington Burns and Anthony Costello, professor of international child health at the UCL Institute of Child Health, discussed the film and took questions from the audience.

Christy Turlington Burns narrates the film throughout, and begins by explaining the inspiration behind the film – and presumably the campaign she set up, and her taking a Masters in public health at Columbia University’s Mailman School. After she gave birth to her first child she had a post-partum haemorrhage. Of course, she received excellent care and she and her daughter were fine. She also realised many mothers weren’t as privileged.

The film has beautiful cinematography, a great sound track, interesting characters, and leaves any gory details to your imagination. It follows at risk pregnant women in Tanzania and Bangladesh, has a moving interview with a man in the US whose partner died from an amniotic fluid embolism when their son was born, and shows a doctor in Guatemala who works in public health. Guatemala has strict anti-abortion laws, and this doctor highlighted how many women die from botched abortions. 

Each story is interspersed with glimpses of Turlington Burns’ seemingly charmed life in New York, although she visits a clinic for women with no health insurance in Florida to show that it’s not just developing countries where economic disparity exists.

The film doesn’t answer any questions, but it gives you a lot to think about. It makes clear that many women around the world can’t access quality maternity care for several reasons: lack of money, being too far away from healthcare, and because of social, cultural and religious barriers. Perhaps we knew these things already, but the film was a powerful way of of driving the message home.

You can view No Woman, No Cry on

Oh, and Christy Turlington Burns, yes, she was incredibly beautiful in real life.

Sally Carter is a technical editor, BMJ