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Interview with Anne-Sophie Bailly, director of La Ventrière [The Midwife]
Friday 28 January 2022, by
In the French Jura mountains, at the end of fictitious Middle Ages, Else is an herbalist and a midwife. With Nicole, her young apprentice, they are disturbed during their daily practice: a stranger riding a horse demands to gather all the women of the village in its small church.
Why did you choose to use the Middle Ages to tell this story? And why set it in the Jura mountains?
The Middle Ages is a very broad historical period, and is sometimes very caricatured. In the film, I depict the late Middle Ages, or even the early Renaissance, around 1600, and that’s a time that I think strongly resonates with our current time. It was a key moment when many things were changing, and though certain humanist principles were spreading in intellectual spheres, it was also a moment when society was becoming more vertical. All corporations were crushed through the creation of larger institutions, and a certain number of empirical practices were violently swept away. Today, research shows that in certain respects what we call the High Middle Ages is the opposite of an obscurantist period: women played an important, acknowledged social role; hygiene was better than during the Renaissance. The Jura was part of an area where numerous religious disturbances promoted the beginnings of what we would later call the witch hunts. As it happens, I grew up in Franche-Comté, so the underlying reasons for witch hunting appeared in exactly the landscapes of my youth. I’m very familiar with the forests where herbalists gathered plants, the Roman chapels; their images are imprinted in me, and I can make many ghosts walk about them. Silhouettes of nuns beyond the ages were superimposed onto those images, particularly a care-giver and her apprentice. And this mix of images seemed like an obvious candidate to me for cinematic treatment.
What did you want to explore through the character of the midwife?
The caregiver is a character that steadfastly traverses the entire early part of my work as a young filmmaker. My family is composed mostly of women; my mother is a nurse, one of my sisters is a young gynecologist and sexologist. I see a form of strength in caregiving, especially in women caring for women. That strength is in opposition to patriarchal power, which is imposed. It’s related to what the ecofeminist theoretician Starhawk calls “the power from within”. I think that’s how I fantasize about female power, and even in a distant historical context, the character of the midwife is tremendously contemporary for me. Midwives were persecuted as witches, and for me they possess a form of very concrete magic, which is not at all esoteric but physical. What interested me in the character is the idea that her sorcery is knowledge. When I imagined Else’s work, I told myself that aborting or helping to give birth were the same thing: helping a female body to pass an important physical milestone. I’d already filmed female caregivers for a documentary on young midwives and obstetric interns in the maternity ward at Montreuil (En Travail, 2019) and I was stricken by the cinegenetic quality of the movements involved in care: hands against the body, sometimes inside it – that was an image that really guided my camera.
How did the filming go?
The filming was fantastic because the group – both the actresses and the crew – worked amazingly. I worked in theater before taking up films and from my first film sets on, I’ve always tried to create a sense of company. It works differently each time, and it has guaranteed benefits, for example bringing us together against extreme weather conditions. On this film, there was a general form of sisterliness on set that corresponded directly with the film itself. It was very cold in the church, and I’m sure that the tension in the bodies that that implies had a genuine imprint on the film and on what was going on, in terms of the narrative and cinematic stakes at the time. It’s even evident in the rushes because we couldn’t have manufactured the steam coming out of their mouths. And it creates a lot of more or less unconscious emotion, being spectators of these bodies dressed in homespun dresses, fighting the cold together.
How did you become a filmmaker?
I started at la Fémis without ever having made a proper film, because I’d only ever made one hour-and-a-half feature film for acting in the theater. It was a one-person act based on Louise Bourgeois’ diary which talks about her relationship to her mother. When I got to la Fémis, no doubt helped by my partial ignorance of the stakes of the exam, I became completely insatiable about filming. I made my first film with one of my close friends who had just had a baby (Maman, 2018), the documentary En Travail (2019), a musical that was very political and really resembled a film company, Acte cent, la relève (2020), and La Ventrière (2021). At the same time, for four years, I’ve filmed my company of theater friends every summer on my grandmother’s farm. I’m working on editing that film, as I make progress on writing my first feature film, Mona, that also treadfs the same terrain of maternity, lines of descent and determinism through the character of a caregiver And finally, I’m currently co-writing Laetitia Dosch’s first feature film which takes a poetic, humorous look at our real-life relationship.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
It might be paradoxical for someone who likes characters as much as I do, but I’d say Pialat’s L’amour existe, precisely because he turns the land into a character. I recently saw a very lovely film that the Poitiers festival was wonderful enough to screen alongside La Ventrière, August Sky by Jasmin Tenucci, which is about the trials of a pregnant nurse who watches as the Amazon burns, covering the sky of São Paulo in a dark veil, with the Neo-Pentacostal Church as a backdrop.
What’s your definition of a good film?
The necessity of making it, which every shot will breathe forth to anyone who knows how to watch it.