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How best to tell the midwife’s tale

Originally published in Current, May 1, 1995
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Making a documentary about pre-filmic times is a difficult enough task for most producers, but try to do it in a way that weaves the stories of a contemporary historian and an 18th Century New England midwife, that moves from documentary to drama and back again, that doesn't make assumptions about the culture and mannerisms of frontier societies after the American revolution.

Too difficult, you say? Producer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt doesn't think so, and neither does the National Endowment for the Humanities, which recently awarded $900,000 to her proposal for a film adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prize winning book, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812. That's half of what Kahn-Leavitt needs to complete the budget for her project, which she hopes to take into production in fall 1995.

Of course, Kahn-Leavitt has faced numerous skeptics along the way, including Laurel Ulrich, author of the book on which the film is based, who this summer joins Harvard's faculty as a professor of history. Although in early conversations with the producer Ulrich was "quite impressed" not only with Kahn-Leavitt's "interest in doing something visual but also her appreciation for the process of scholarship," Ulrich said she doubted her ability to "dramatize and make visual the process of historical discovery."

Her doubts didn't have to do so much with Kahn-Leavitt, but with her own perceptions about her work. She thought of historical research as "very dull."

"That wasn't the way I understood my work. I didn't understand it in terms of 'Eureka!' moments, and so on."

Then there was the NEH. When Kahn-Leavitt applied for production funding from the endowment last year, the review panel's response was, "we've never seen anything like what you're proposing--a documentary that evolves into drama," she recalled. "Show us you can do this." With enough funding for a 15-minute test reel, Kahn-Leavitt assembled a production team and cast, and put together a reel that knocked her NEH patrons' socks off.

Photo of author and producer
The diary that Ulrich (left) made into history,
Kahn-Leavitt (right) is now making into drama/documentary.

"I think that Laurie has created for herself an extraordinary challenge, one that many other people would have run away from," said Steve Fayer, one of two writers who worked on the script early on. To combine drama and documentary formats and set the "most rigid standards" for the historical accuracy of sets and dialect is "really tough."

"This is kind of Merchant-Ivory-plus."

Discovering Martha

Shot in fall 1994 in a historic town on Staten Island, the reel demonstrates how "A Midwife's Tale" will both document Ulrich's painstaking research process and dramatize the life of Martha Ballard, a midwife and healer whose cryptic, two-volume diary Ulrich deciphered into a compelling account of life in post-Revolutionary frontier America.

Ulrich spent eight years pouring through the diary--a document that other historians had passed over as a simple household account--and analyzing minute details about Ballard's day-to-day life. In its early documentary segments, the film will recount her research process, moving into dramatic mode to bring to life Ulrich's discoveries about Martha.

The test reel covers an early portion of the film that interweaves documentary and drama as Ulrich catches her first glimpse of Ballard's emotional life. In the midst of a scarlet fever epidemic in which Martha tirelessly makes housecalls to treat the sick, Ulrich encounters two unusual diary entries: "My daughter Hannah is 18 years old this day" and, about a woman named McMaster who lost a child to the fever, "Poor mother, how distress in her case. Near the hour of labor and three children more very sick."

In a dramatic scene, Martha, solemnly watching the grieving mother rock her dead child, moves across the room, kneels at Mrs. McMaster's feet, touches her hand gently and removes the child from her arms. The reel then returns to documentary mode as Ulrich recalls how, having puzzled over these entries, she began researching Ballard's previous life and epidemics in New England.

Ulrich learned that, within a few weeks in the summer of 1769, Martha had lost three daughters to a diphtheria epidemic; later that summer, she gave birth to her daughter Hannah.

"Suddenly it just all fell together in one place," Ulrich comments on the reel. "It almost gave me chills with I thought about it."

The "bland entry" about Hannah's birthday told her that "as Martha nursed other women's children, she was recalling her own experience."

In a shift back to dramatization, viewers return to the McMaster household. Martha again approaches the sorrowful mother, but the scene is shot from a front angle, rather than the side, and Ballard's own anguish is evident on her face. She kneels, touches the mother's hand, and, this time, embraces her as she takes the deceased in her arms, moving away hastily with her head down.

The reel flashes back to a previous scene where Martha, watching a fire engulf the family sawmill, embraces her daughter Hannah, then returns again to the McMasters. As Martha lays out the dead child, she grimaces, holding back her tears.

Kahn-Leavitt plans to use similar techniques to give viewers a dramatic sense of the historical process and what is knowable and not knowable about the past. Mannerisms, pronunciation, and midwifery techniques are just a few of the big details she and Director Dick Rogers have obsessed about to bring authenticity to the dramatizations.

Kahn-Leavitt has called upon Ulrich and a team of historians she refers to as the "Maine Mafia"--academic advisers whose expertise together covers the spectrum of knowledge about post-Revolutionary New England--to answer questions about medical history, set design, daily life activities, and social etiquette.

But for questions that are unanswerable, Kahn-Leavitt to a certain extent is willing to resist the artistic license that often makes historians cringe when they watch films about the past, and she has developed methods of highlighting historic uncertainties.

In the test reel, for example, as Martha examines the arms of the local reverend who is sick with the fever, Ulrich comments in voice-over narration, "I don't know whether Martha physically examined the Rev. Mr. Foster. I don't know whether he opened his shirt and showed her his rash."

The film is not just about manners and daily behavior, noted Rogers. But he sees both as the "language of the bigger issues," such as class in a frontier community, what it means for Martha's husband to work for wealthy landowner. These themes are embedded in "A Midwife's Tale," and the filmmakers must find ways of conveying them to the audience.

Pen to paper

The interwoven epidemic scenes and Ulrich's story of discovering Martha's emotional life are bridges into a fully dramatized section of the film. Ulrich is heard only in occasional voice-over commentary. Ballard's life, dramatized in seasonal episodes that coincide with the different challenges and changes she encounters, includes many ups and downs: the epidemic and a rape trial in which she is a key witness (summer); an attack on her husband by "White Indians" who lay claim to land he is surveying (fall); an economic recession in which her husband is jailed for being unable to collect taxes from townspeople (winter); a revitalization of her practice and her husband's release from jail (spring).

Bringing the project to its present stage has not been easy. After receiving an NEH scripting grant, Kahn-Leavitt worked with Fayer and another writer before deciding to take a stab at writing it herself.

"I had a very clear idea of what I wanted that wasn't straight documentary or straight drama," said the producer, whose experience prior to founding Blueberry Hill Productions includes production and research work for the American Experience, Eyes on the Prize and Frontline's "Crisis in Central America." To bring someone else "up to speed" with all the research she already had done and the vision she had for the film proved too difficult.

"What she's realized as she's gone along is how much she's known from the beginning how she wanted to do this," said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre and a consultant to the project. Kahn-Leavitt's recognition that she needed to write the script herself was a key moment in the project's development.

Having never written drama before, Kahn-Leavitt found it to be a "liberating," "exhilarating" experience. "I pulled more all-nighters writing the script by the NEH deadline than I had since college."

Now the task is to convince enough other funders of the project's worthiness soon enough that she can launch production with the same cast and crew. She acknowledged that, with looming threats to public broadcasting's federal support, such a big project is a "hard sell in this climate."

"It is certainly easier looking for money with the NEH behind me, and having as much money as I have behind me. People are really interested and seriously considering it."

Web page posted Sept. 12, 1995
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 1995


The American Experience episode's site at

Review of the program on NewEnglandFilm.

Photo of actresses in test reel
Martha Ballard (played by Kaiulani Sewall Lee) embraces her daughter Hannah (Amelia Campbell) in a scene from the "Midwife's Tale" test reel.