Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Past is a Foreign Place: Immersed in the Film "A Midwife's Tale"

It's pretty rare for me to give a movie its own posting here on Passion for the Past; you know it's got to be something very special. Let's be honest about it: putting "historical accuracy" and "movies" in the same breath is pretty much an oxymoron, and it is unfortunate that 'Hollywood history' is where too many armchair historians get their knowledge of the past from. Oh, every-so-often they'll get it right, but not very. Even the History Channel, that go-to place for all things historical, would rather forsake accuracy for drama (can anyone belch "Sons of Liberty"?).
But "A Midwife's Tale" is a true exception, for it is an exceptional movie. Or should I say it's an exceptional documentary? Hmmm...okay---docu-drama...  
Well, whatever you want to call it, it plays so much like a movie that - I swear! - I can't tell the difference.
And this film is very accurate and absolutely can educate...
~The title page for the film~
Yes, it says "through a woman's eyes," for it comes from a woman's diary. But, in all honesty, it actually shows everyday life through the eyes of everyone who lived in that time.
In 1784, America was a rough and chaotic young nation. That year, at the age of 50, Martha Ballard began the diary that she would keep for the next 27 years, until her death. At a time when fewer than half the women in America were literate, Ballard faithfully recorded the weather, her daily household tasks, her midwifery duties (she delivered close to a thousand babies), her medical practice, and countless incidents that reveal the turmoil of a new nation -- dizzying social change, intense religious conflict, economic boom and bust -- as well as the grim realities of disease, domestic violence, and debtor's prison.
In "A Midwife's Tale" the daily activities, the physical feel of the people and buildings involved, and the historical verity that helps us envision late 18th century life, are always conscious - these eighteenth-century details are overlooked treasures that are rich in the texture of everyday life.

The actors in this drama are unfamiliar. They look like real people, not movie stars. Family dynamics were more believable and souring relationships took on terrific poignancy.
Martha Ballard is played by actress Kaiulani Sewall Lee, a direct descendant of the Sewall family of Maine -- people the real Martha Ballard knew, aided in childbirth, and nursed through illness.

Okay...now did I grab your attention? 
An original page from
Martha Ballard’s diary from 1784
The story of A Midwife's Tale - the true story - is a wonderful primary source for historians, for this daily diary was put into book-form as a sort of dissertation/novel by author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The book is a model of social history at its best. Giving portions of Ballard's diary, it recounts the life and times of this obscure Maine housewife and midwife. Using passages from the diary as a starting point for each chapter division, Ulrich, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, demonstrates how the seemingly trivial details of Ballard's daily life reflect and relate to prominent themes in the history of the early republic: the role of women in the economic life of the community, the nature of marriage and sexual relations, the scope of medical knowledge and practice. 
Shortly after A Midwife's Tale was published, Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, a film producer, read a review of the book, bought a copy, loved it, and worked to secure the film rights.


From the very beginning, Lahn-Leavitt had the idea of interweaving the story of Martha Ballard's life with author Laurel Ulrich's process of piecing it together. She had planned right from the start to have it begin as a documentary and evolve into a historically accurate drama.
And she succeeded.
With all my years of studying the period, I have never seen any film get it right quite like A Midwife's Tale does. The only other movies I've seen come this close to historic accuracy in sight and sound have been the John Adams HBO mini-series and "Lincoln" starring Daniel Day-Lewis from a few years ago.
Since my first viewing, A Midwife's Tale has haunted me. No, not in a scary way, but, rather, in such a manner that wills me to now look at historic 18th century houses with more discerning eyes and a more intimate mindset. I will see beyond the walls and presenters to feel the ghosts of those who lived within the walls during the time of the good old colony days.
Ahhh...if only walls could talk indeed!
And yet, they do.
Inside the home of Samuel and Anna Daggett. 
The Daggett House is an actual 18th century structure from the same period depicted in A Midwife's Tale, and now sits inside historic Greenfield Village.
Is A Midwife's Tale a happy and upbeat film?
No.
Oh, there are happy times, but the movie is rather dark and daring.
Real.
So, what I'd like to do here is to show the extent the crew and actors went to in order to create such an accurate window into the past of late 18th century life.
To make that period in history, as I said, real.
The words you are about to read were taken from a web site, DoHistory, which did a case study on piecing together the past from fragments that have survived. The site welcomes historians to share what they have written. This is what I am doing, with only slight modifications.
I hope you enjoy it. And if you do, I hope it entices you to purchase "A Midwife's Tale" in both book and film form.
You will not be sorry.

>>> The past is a foreign place, and a film's portrayal of the past depends upon thousands of choices about the physical, behavioral, and cultural details of the period and place being presented. Being authentic or truthful about the past involves much more than getting the costumes and the architectural details right.
Shortly after beginning the project of making A Midwife's Tale - the diary of Martha Ballard - into a film, producer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt put together a board of advisors who are expert on the eighteenth century: on women's history, architectural history, medical history, music, and material culture. With their guidance, she plunged into the research, which included visiting the buildings which are still standing that were part of Martha Ballard's world. She visited archives all over Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire and put together a database of thousands of images from the eighteenth century, including handwritten documents, paintings, maps, medical book illustrations, children's book illustrations, newspapers, broadsides, photos of buildings, and the artifacts of everyday life. She found out what had been written about dialects and music and religious beliefs two hundred years ago, and she learned as much as she could about the everyday work done by men and women in eighteenth century Hallowell, Maine: textile production, laundry, cooking, farming, surveying, etc. Kahn-Leavitt also put together a timeline of Martha Ballard's life and the national and international events that affected her family and her town.
Working closely with Laurel Ulrich, the book’s author, Kahn-Leavitt developed a script.
They auditioned local stage actors, offered them a free workshop, created a small ensemble, and got to work in a barn in Lincoln, Massachusetts (loaned to them by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities). The actors were able to improvise lines.
Real people were cast to play the roles. Hence, another reason why this film plays out so naturally.
Historical issues involved in the recreation of the past came up; questions about behavior and speech kept coming up, and many were unanswerable given the documentation that survives. How did these people speak? What songs did they sing to themselves? How close did they stand to one another? They realized how far they needed to venture beyond the solid ground where historians feel most comfortable -- a rather frightening realization for them. Laurel Ulrich was present for nearly all of the dramatic shooting days. Eighteenth century dance expert Richard Castner taught the cast several eighteenth century dances for the quilting dance that precedes the three marriages in the film. Medical historian Worth Estes was present the day the workshop shot the dissection of Martha's niece, Parthenia. And other project scholars were consulted by phone as needed.
Difficult concrete historical questions arose when preparing to put Martha's physical world up on the screen. When Martha applied onions to the feet to draw out a fever (something learned from her diary), were they raw or cooked? Did she apply them to the top of the foot or to bottom of the foot? Medical scholars didn't know, so they asked several modern herbalists and were told they used raw onion on the ball of the foot. Did Martha say "Mistress" or "Misses" for the written "Mrs" in her diary? It is known this period was a time of transition between the two pronunciations. But which would Martha use? It was feared modern audiences would incorrectly associate the use of "Mistress" with a relation of servitude, so they decided to go with "Misses." Kaiulani Lee, the actress playing Martha, asked during a scene in which she is called in to help the Rev. Mr. Foster, who is sick with scarlet fever, "Do I roll up his sleeve? Do I look in his throat? Or do I keep a more respectful distance?" The answers received from historians on the subject were split. Most of the men felt that Martha would keep her distance. Most of the women felt that Martha would have inspected the minister. So it was shot both ways, and the final decision was made in the editing room.
All involved knew A Midwife's Tale would sink or swim with the casting of Martha Ballard. The character of Martha Ballard was a very non-modern combination of warmth and reticence. They auditioned many accomplished, first-rate actresses. But something interesting happened. The actresses who understood the warmth in Martha's character tended to tip into sentimentality. And the ones who understood the reticence in her character tended to tip into cool detachment. Kaiulani Lee, however, nailed the part when she auditioned.
Kaiulani Lee, as Martha Ballard, writes in her diary.
There is a very interesting scene where we see Martha making her own ink. Imagine making your own ink just to write.
Awesome.

She is talented, and strong, and remarkably expressive in her physical movements. For a script like what was needed, she was perfect. The only reservation was her age, but they ultimately handled that by splurging on special effects makeup artists flown in from LA.
The producers also had to create a believable family and a believable town. They were looking for people who looked like they had worked with their hands their entire lives. They wanted to create a past that was convincing-- a world in which people had different shaped noses, and bad teeth, and birthmarks, and other human imperfections. And they were wary of child actors trained to hawk products by being cute.
Early on, the decision was made to shoot A Midwife's Tale in real locations because building sets from scratch would be too expensive, and the first step was to find a single place where they could shoot the dramatic scenes for the film. The director Dick Rogers, the production designer Nancy Deren, and producer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt scouted locations all over Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and upstate New York. But there was no single place that had a wide river like the Kennebec (the river that runs through Hallowell/Augusta Maine), a functional eighteenth century sawmill, a variety of farmhouses and outbuildings, fields, and forest. When the architectural advisor said he'd heard about, but never visited a place called King's Landing in New Brunswick, Canada, the three made the trip and were amazed; King's Landing (a settlement which includes houses built by Loyalists escaping the American Revolution) had a wide river, a sawmill, lots of buildings, outbuildings, fields, animals, and woods.
Filming A Midwife's Tale

They felt they had walked onto a $30 million set that was almost (but not quite) designed with the film in mind!
To get correct period clothing for A Midwife's Tale, they looked at images of everyday life in American and European paintings and engravings from the period. They also looked at photographs of 20th century rural life and photographs of the Colonial Revival – also from the early part of the 20th century. They used these images with caution, since the Colonial Revival often romanticized the past, and modern rural life is different in many ways than it was in Martha's time. But valuable lessons were gleaned from all of these images -- about the quality of light, the kinds of disarray or tidiness in a rural home, the look of smoke-stained walls, the kinds of objects typically left on mantle pieces, and hundreds of other details. Together the director, DP (director of photography), and production designer chose the palette for specific scenes and sets. Director Dick Rogers and DP Peter Stein conducted experiments with different kinds of lighting. Working with Dick and Peter, production designer Nancy Deren drew up ground plans showing how the buildings and gardens at Kings Landing could be adapted to match the script and enhance Dick's directing choices. Meanwhile, costume designer Kim Druce coordinated her costume plans with their choices, and drew up costume sketches.
On filming A Midwife's Tale, everything had to age over the twenty-seven year time span covered in the book: the buildings, the props, the costumes, even the actors and the seasons had to change.
Production designer Nancy Deren oversaw an art department that included carpenters, painters, gardeners, set decorators and set dressers. They built fake fireplaces, fake walls, and fake moldings when the real buildings at Kings Landing were not historically appropriate for Martha's world. They painted fake smoke stains, they planted fake gardens, and they transformed existing spaces in remarkable ways. A cavernous barn, for example, was transformed into two sets: it became the Hallowell Congregational Church for one scene, and then it became the store at Fort Western in another scene!
Looks like natural lighting instead of the bright lights of Hollywood to me!
Furniture and household objects were borrowed from Kings Landing and other generous museums and historical societies all over New England. The prop department created replicas of Martha's diary booklets, of period newspapers, children's books, medical kits, and maps. A boat ride was faked using a pickup truck and smoke machines. And "rain" was created using garden hoses and fire trucks.
In a period piece like A Midwife's Tale, costume, hair and makeup require extensive research. But you have to use the historical sources carefully. Looking at the portraits that survive from the period, you see the top ten percent of the population dressed up in their finest clothing, with many of their imperfections "improved" by the portrait painter. To figure out what the other ninety percent of the population might have looked like (on days when they did--and did not--look their best), the costume, hair, and makeup departments all had to extrapolate. How would most of the population adapt the styles of the day to their budgets? Which fashions were they aware of? Using information about 18th-century shipping and trading patterns, guessing about each individual character's feelings about fashion, and making inferences about personalities, the costume, hair, and makeup departments created a range of characters to inhabit the film's world. Some of Martha's family and neighbors (as portrayed in the film) attempted to keep up with the latest fashions. And others were decidedly old-fashioned in their choices. Some were quirky in their tastes. Others were strictly conventional.
Because they knew that the film would flop if the audience was aware of old-age makeup that was not convincing, this was one place they paid careful attention. Kaiulani was actually in her forties, but she had to age in the film from 50 to 77 years old. To age her and the other principal actors in A Midwife's Tale, they brought in special effects makeup artists from L.A. For the final scenes of the film, Kaiulani had to spend three hours in makeup getting her face and hands made old.
Actual newborn babies were cast as...
well...newborns!
The extras in A Midwife's Tale were carefully chosen. The production crew hired a calligrapher to double for Kaiulani for the close-ups of Martha Ballard writing in her diary. They were also determined to cast real newborns (not six or eight month old babies!) as newborns. The woman in charge of casting extras called every obstetrician, midwife, and very pregnant women within a hundred mile radius and used her considerable charm (and some help from an experienced midwife) to convince these parents to let their newborns be part of the film. They hired local Fredericton townspeople as Martha's Hallowell neighbors (hundreds of people showed up for the open auditions advertised in the local newspaper). And there were quite a few sheep, turkeys, horses, oxen, and chickens, too.
Early on, the decision was made to use music sparingly, taking advantage of tunes and instrumentation that belong in Martha Ballard's world. The advice of several experts who know about 18th-century American religious music and popular music was sought out. They recommended a wide range of tunes and songs, and some were written into the script, performed or sung by the film's actors: a lullaby, a religious fugue, two drinking songs, and a marching tune.
Along with the music, most of the sound effects in A Midwife's Tale were natural sounds of rural animals, insects, wind, rain, etc.
With the film's completion, it was the producer's job to launch the finished work into the world, spreading the word, and finding the best distributor for the film. In the case of A Midwife's Tale, there were multiple audiences to reach: professional historians and history buffs, healers and midwives, people interested in the history of medicine, senior citizens, fans of the book, and people who want to know more about women's lives in the past. Screenings were held with all of these audiences. And the film received coverage nationwide in newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV.
On January 19, 1998 it was broadcast as the opening show of the tenth season of the PBS series THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. It is now available through PBS Video and Amazon.com (click HERE), and is used by schools, universities, health and community groups around the world. <<< 

From the social historian to the casual history buff, from the living historian & reenactor to the historical presenter - all who want to see real history come to life on their television screens should make watching A Midwife's Tale a priority.
Don't you just love watching history when they finally get it right?
(Side note: Clara Barton, Civil War nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, was the granddaughter of Ballard's sister, Dorothy Barton).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
 
As noted earlier in this post, even before the film was thought of, A Midwife's Tale was a book written by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and it showed scholars and general readers alike new ways of imagining the past. Speculating on why Ballard kept the diary as well as why her family saved it, Ulrich highlights the document's usefulness for historians. “Showing” rather than “telling” is a key distinction here, because the transformative power of this book is not reducible to a pithy set of scholarly key words. 
~“Clear and spring like. Grew cold at Evening. Snowd some. I have been at home. Irond my cloaths &c.” - Martha Ballard~
Laurel managed to extricate a stunning vision of one woman’s life from such cryptic passages and show us that viewing the world through the writings of one woman in a remote corner of the globe could spur fundamental reassessment of long-established narratives. Laurel saw in this (large) but not especially inspiring cloth-bound diary a promising resource that other historians had failed to appreciate fully. It also demonstrated that economic, medical, legal, religious, and demographic histories need to understand the experiences of women (and of ordinary people more generally), or risk being simply wrong. A Midwife’s Tale’s scholarly innovations have carried its influence beyond these specific fields and has given Martha’s story global reach.
Because of the research time spent in writing this book, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a truly gifted historian, was able to bring to life an 18th century woman to the extent that one can almost hear the voice of Martha Ballard as she goes about her productive, meaningful life in late 1700s Maine. One can almost feel her shining, transcendent spirit nearby...


To read the book, click: A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785 - 1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
And, again, for the film, please click HERE

For a listing of some other very accurate American history movies, check out THIS post.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From the site DoHistory about the information on the filming of "A Midewife's Tale":
"In general, the content on this site is shareable and can be used for personal and educational uses without restrictions. As always, proper citing and due attribution is required. Linking to this site from your website is permissible. For use in publications, papers and other uses, please cite as follows, including specific information on the title, url, and date accessed:
"History Toolkit: Using Primary Sources," Do History http://dohistory.org/on_your_own/toolkit/primarySources.html (accessed April 28, 2009). Reprinted with permission from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University.
Copyright © 2000, President and Fellows of Harvard College.
All materials are copyrighted by the President and Fellows of Harvard College except where otherwise indicated. Commercial use prohibited without permission. All rights reserved."










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4 comments:

The BUTT'RY and BOOK'RY said...


Excellent Ken!!!
I really enjoyed this whole writing :-)

And the photo of you, and of Patty at the walking wheel in the
home of Samuel and Anna Daggett, is a first prize winner!!
(worthy to be printed on canvas and hung on the wall)!!
Blessings and warmth Linnie

Evelyn Fidler said...

Thanks Ken! I was one of the extras in the church scene (along with my 9 month old son) and last birthing scene. The curatorial staff at Kings Landing were determined to get it right and one became my mentor and I remember what she taught me when I myself was in charge of curatorial advice on other movies shot at Kings Landing.

Suzanne said...

Thank you so much Ken, this review is brilliantly done! I have had this on my films to buy for awhile and forgot about it. I remember seeing this on PBS-dark is what I remember, yet there was triumph:-)

Sharing to Take Peace , so others can enjoy.

Cheers,

Suzanne

Ruth Hodges said...

Thank you so much for this in depth "movie review". I'm very familiar with the book but never knew there was a movie. I ordered a copy and look forward to watching it.

Do you happen to know more about the barn in Lincoln, Massachusetts mentioned above? I live in Lincoln and am a reenactor here.