Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Pacific Mother - film documentary



Pacific Mother - at Palace Electric, Canberra. One-off event 6.30pm, October 3, 2023.

Year: 2023. Duration: 88 minutes. Genre: Documentary - Health & Wellbeing.
Writer Director: Katherine McRae.

Reviewed by Frank McKone


Fresh from winning Best Feature at the Doc Edge Film Festival, the documentary Pacific Mother had its Australian premiere in Sydney at the Ritz Cinema, Randwick last week to a packed audience. In attendance was the film’s director Katherine McRae and Birth Time co-director Zoe Naylor who hosted an exclusive Q&A.

Pacific Mother is based around Sachiko Fukumoto, a Japanese champion free diver and actress who is married to fellow-free diving champ William Trubridge. It’s an extension to the ultra-short doco Water Baby, which showed Fukumoto’s giving birth at home in a tub in New Zealand – Trubridge’s home country. The film follows Fukumoto as she travels Japan, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Hawaii, New Zealand, interviewing midwives as well as pregnant women who want a divorce from the maternity ward.

Pacific Mother is playing in select cinemas across Australia and NZ now. In order for each screening to go ahead the minimum ticket threshold must be met, so please reserve tickets before each event deadline.

Director Katherine McRae  


Sachiko Fukumoto’s story of searching for – and finding – the right way for her to have her first baby is simply fascinating.  She is literally and metaphorically a deep sea diver.  Without pretension, we discover and learn with her what she discovers.

From Sachiko’s lived experience, director Katherine McRae has made Pacific Mother, an extraordinarily important documentary loaded with mental hyperlinks to real people’s lives, from the immediate and personal to universal truths.

Sex education for boys
Sex education for girls
Sexualism and violence against women
Human kindness
Medicalisation of birthing
Indigenous knowledge and colonialism
Cross-cultural understanding
The future of humanity

I wish I had been able to see the live births of babies in this intimate detail when I was aged 15.  Of course, in 1956, these images would have been banned as pornography – but I had already a hidden collection of photos of nude women from certain magazines, which stimulated my thoughts and other things without  having a clue of what it meant to be a girl who could have a baby.

Sex education had never been more than diagrams showing the physical differences between male and female – but had never included the existence of a clitoris.  Only when I read Germaine Greer and the Kama Sutra in the 1970s could I begin to realise my lack of understanding, in practical and emotional terms.

The positive relationships we see in Pacific Mother between the women and their men are still, I believe, a revelation that boys need as much today at age 15 as I needed 70 years ago.  

And for girls, this upfront showing of what it is really like to be pregnant and to give birth is a revelation of a different kind.  It is natural for a woman to have a baby, not a fearful medical procedure.  The women’s strength of purpose, physical and emotional, and of their achievement surely can only give girls seeing this documentary the confidence to make their own decisions about having sex: to take charge of their lives.

But, of course, boys have to become men who recognise that having sex is a responsibility, a matter of mutual respect, and not a conquest.  And girls must learn to choose carefully and wisely, and not be ‘bowled over’ by superficial fashion.

If every sex education course included showing Pacific Mother with extensive discussion especially of the importance of women’s autonomy which shines forth from the film, there would be a massive reduction of male sexual violence in the next generation.  I’m not, now in my old age, too idealistic – but surely it is not too much to hope that we can improve on these figures: “On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. In the year 2021/22, 5606 women (average of 15 women/day) were hospitalised due to family and domestic violence”.

And then, on a broader and more political scale, decision makers in government will find from Pacific Mother the reasons why the assumption that birth should only take place in a hospital as a starting point is no more than an industrial-style reaction to the fear of women dying in childbirth.  

Medical support is necessary when things are going wrong, like preeclampsia (which caused one of my daughters to need a caesarian section), but a properly funded midwifery system across the country would mean the end of my experience in the 1960s of a strict hospitalisation regime – which included my not being allowed to be with my wife, because I might faint or slip on a wet floor!; and included her being kept from her baby according to a rigid feeding schedule – and would now mean continuing post-natal recovery support, according to the traditional cultural and personal individual wishes of the new mother.  Aotearoa New Zealand seems the most progressive in this story.

In many cases in the film, for example from Japan, Cook Islands, Tahiti, Hawaii, colonisation has meant the imposition of those ‘Western’ medical assumptions overriding local midwifery traditions and reducing mothers to becoming hospital patients with no rights rather than having the human right to take responsibility and enjoy the success of having a baby on their own terms.

I spoke to two experienced midwives (I was the only male in the audience on this occasion) and found that the colonisation of Australia has had that same effect on our First Nations women, as well as affecting women from other cultures in our migrant population.

So I see Pacific Mother as far more than a political cry for the right to home births.  The personal stories in the film are about kindness, human rights to autonomy, the building of people’s self-confidence in a socially supportive society, and the true meaning of equality for women and for people from all the cultures in what we proudly call our multicultural society.  And it is a shout out to men to find new attitudes and learn to come together in mateship with strong women.

It’s time to vote yes in all sorts of ways for a better future.  See Pacific Mother and find a new understanding.