When Great Documentaries Have Very Limited Appeal and That’s Okay

mama sherpas

Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein are in the business of making documentaries about maternity. Beginning with their collaboration on Epstein’s 2008 feature The Business of Being Born, which tackles a rather comprehensive address of the maternity care industry, they’ve continued to produce more-focused explorations of related subject matter with last year’s self-explanatory doc Breastmilk and now The Mama Sherpas, about the growing collaboration between obstetricians and midwives. And they’re currently working on a new feature directed by Epstein about birth control side effects, titled Sweetening the Pill.

There’s nothing wrong with documentary filmmakers having a niche and sticking to it. I only want Brian Knappenberger (The Internet’s Own Boy) to make docs about the Internet, for instance, and prefer that he be the only one to do so. And there’s nothing wrong with docs having a very particular demographic or target audience. Plenty of decent films are made about anything from My Little Pony fandom to exotic fruit and its connoisseurs. But typically if a niche doc is good enough (as in the case of, say, A Brony Tale and The Fruit Hunters), it can transcend its target audience and be enjoyed by all. The most fascinating thing about Lake and Epstein’s productions is that even when they’re great they’re impossible to recommend to anyone but the people they’re specifically for.

After watching Breastmilk and being fairly impressed by its aesthetic and structural quality, I thought about reviewing the film but couldn’t really give it a straight thumbs up or thumbs down — not that my reviews tend to be easy platforms of consumer advocacy, but they do adhere to a rating system and can be categorized as positive or negative on Rotten Tomatoes — because I’m sure that it’s not worthwhile for anyone not interested in the topic of breastfeeding. Fortunately, there are many millions of people having babies every year that could want to and maybe benefit from seeing it. That includes men, too, because most babies have fathers. I admit, despite being a documentary critic, that I really only bothered with it because I am a dad and at the time was expecting a second child and was curiously invested. I found it to be the best possible documentary for what it is.

The same is true of The Business of Being Born, and even though it covers a wider array of aspects concerning having a baby, that whole subject is limited mostly to the interests of people presently having a baby, plus anyone working in the industry. That industry is pretty intriguing, though, as much as the systemic properties of any commercial enterprise based in something so integral to life should be. The film could and would be as accessible and popular as Food, Inc. if reproduction was on the same level of biological necessity as is food. The Business of Being Born is good, but if you’re not thinking of having a baby yet or never will or are already done having them, you won’t get a lot out of it. If you are within the demo of interest, though, it can be a very persuasive promotion of natural childbirth.

The Mama Sherpas, which arrived on iTunes this week, follows suit, though it isn’t nearly as good a film as the previous two. It features its own director, Briged Maher, as a talking head, for one thing. It’s also not always as clear in its arguments, here being for why a midwife should be considered by expectant parents as the primary person to deliver their baby. However, it’s also not very balanced as far as noting the alternatives and their pros, as well as cons. Therefore, undecided viewers may still be convinced by its suggestion. I wouldn’t totally discourage anyone about to have a baby from seeing The Mama Sherpas, either, because as part of a package with Lake and Epstein’s other two docs, it does add some to the overall guidance through the options and experiences. Also, it adds more footage of babies crowning, and that stuff is these films’ bread and butter.

It should be stated that even with The Mama Sherpas’ faults, on a technical and cinematographic level, it’s miles ahead of many docs with niche audiences. A lot of filmmakers continue to believe that they can get away with mediocre picture, sound, direction, etc., because the content drives the docs and appeals to fans and other pursued viewers’ interests. And that’s terribly disrespectful of those audiences. I commend Lake and Epstein for clearly aiming to make the highest quality documentaries they can in spite of how big or small their audience may be — though it saddens me that this is not a normal expectation for docs and shouldn’t be worthy of this kind of praise. Maybe they can be an inspiring model for others, then. Just pass on this phrase: Motherhood docs know best.

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(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.