Friday, August 2, 2013

Moms in the Spotlight: The Filmmakers Behind "Pushing Motherhood"

I was thrilled when the legendary dance teacher Michele Assaf turned me on to Pushing Motherhood, the documentary film Sybil Azur and Linda Cevallos-French were working on.  

Everything about it spoke to me.

Like me, they were dancers who had become passionate about another creative medium.   They chose to become mothers late and understood the heartbreak of infertility, and the badge of "eldery primigravida," which, roughly translated means, "Girl, ain't you too ol' to be havin' yo first baby?" 

I wanted to connect with them immediately.

Sybil and Linda are beautiful, smart, multi-talented, warm and gracious!  If their film is even half as smart and sensitive as their interview, they'll be up for numerous awards.  I am lucky and beyond elated to be able to feature the brilliant forces behind Pushing Motherhood on Mom's New Stage!

How and why did you decide to create Pushing Motherhood?

SYBIL: A few years ago, we noticed that the majority of our friends had waited to have children. They were all in their late 30s and early 40s, and many had to employ extra measures (e.g., IVF, gestational carrier, adoption) to become mothers. We wanted to answer the central question of why they (and we) had waited so long, and also thought it would be important to unpack the costs and benefits of older motherhood. Linda already owned the equipment, so we decided to pick up the camera and look for answers to our questions.

I know how to birth choreography or a show, but am clueless when it comes to film.  Can you outline the process a bit?

LINDA: Birthing a film involves a lot of the same elements that we use as choreographers and in creating a show. With any of these projects—a film or a choreographed show—you start with an idea. How do we bring this idea to life? Once we figure out that the process begins!

In creating Pushing Motherhood we began with a question: Why are women waiting to become mothers? We developed a core group of questions to ask our interviewees, which is similar to the foundation of a dance piece.

The beauty of a documentary is that as the project progresses, it is constantly evolving and shifting. You need to stay open to any and all developments and allow for these unexpected moments to unfold that you cannot predict or manufacture. It’s similar to a live performance—it’s in the beauty of being in the moment.

Once all the footage is captured, we do a paper edit along with defining a rhythm and a tone for the film. Then it’s off to the editing bay where we start to see our vision come to life.

How are you getting the word out?   How has the response been?

LINDA: We’ve been getting the word out mostly through social media. We have a Pushing Motherhood Facebook page and we are also on Twitter @motherhoodmovie.

Also, we recently raised funds for our documentary on Kickstarter.  We had help from our community in getting the word out. We had friends help set up TV appearances, others shared it with their friends, and a dear friend of ours had a viewing party where we were introduced to a lot of wonderful women bloggers who blogged about our project. People really showed up for us. We were truly blown away by the support and response.

I too had my kids late.  While having a baby in my twenties (or younger) was not an option, there are times when I wonder if I pushed it too late.  Can you speak to this line of doubt?  Do you think we should be encouraging women to have their babies younger, lest they be disappointed not only by infertility but also overwhelmed by the physical stress of motherhood?

SYBIL: That’s a tricky question. It’s so hard to say if there is a too late, or if you can be too old to become a mother. It’s really a decision that each person or family has to make for themselves. Whether a woman has children in her twenties or waits until her thirties or forties, there are advantages and disadvantages on either side. The likelihood of a woman having fertility problems the longer she waits, is an unfortunate reality. However, we’ve found that older women are frequently better prepared financially and emotionally, have stronger unions (if they are partnered), and are able to invest more of their resources into their children.

Conversely, having kids earlier during the peak of fertility allows for less stress during conception, more space in between babies, and a greater number of children if desired. And although younger mothers may have more energy, they often choose to put education and career on the backburner, and are forced to play catch-up with contemporaries later on.

From my own experience (I became a mom at 39), I’ve wondered if I had become a mother earlier, that perhaps I might have had three or four. Motherhood has truly been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. But because I waited, I was able to have an amazing career I loved, travel the world, and get my Bachelor’s Degree. I feel like I am a better mother because I am able to teach my son based on experience and wisdom.

Nevertheless, Linda and I both hope to “push” motherhood, in that women become educated about the realities of the biological clock and the costs and benefits of becoming a mother, whenever they choose to do it. Our goal is to provide women with the tools and resources they will need to make informed decisions, and hope to encourage women to be as proactive in their reproductive lives and relationships as they are with their education and careers.

As dancers we can change our alignment, improve our strength and flexibility, and increase things like how many pirouettes we can successfully accomplish.  How have you been able to reconcile this former level of control with what can feel like physical powerlessness in pregnancy, infertility and childbirth? 

SYBIL: This line of thought has come up a lot during the filming of the documentary. Frequently, the profile of the woman who waits is that of a “career woman,” who has been able to accomplish the lion’s share of what she wanted in her education and career. However, this same woman has to surrender God, luck, or whatever she believes in when it comes to getting pregnant.

Becoming pregnant is one of the few things in life that we have little, if any, control over.

Even with infertility treatments, no one can force an embryo to implant in a uterus. No one can say that achieving pregnancy will guarantee that it goes to term. As far as childbirth goes, no one, regardless of age, can script how it will happen. You can plan all you want, but you have to allow for nature to do its thing. Having (or trying to have) children is a great reminder of how little we are in control in the grand scheme of things. All we can do is do our best and trust that things will turn out exactly how they’re supposed to.

I suffered from infertility too, and it was one of the darkest parts of my life.  And the loneliest, even though so many suffer from it.  I know this is a huge question, but what do you want to say about infertility - what do you want folks to know? 

LINDA:  Infertility is never something you want to go through, but I have found it to be an incredible journey. I think the key is communication. It’s a very telling journey of how you, your husband, your family, and your friends handle adversity. Communication allows you to release some of the fears and sadness and also allows people in.

I know no one will fully understand how difficult it really is without experiencing it personally, but the communication still helps.

What documentaries/and or other documentary filmmakers do you admire and why?

LINDA:  We are so fortunate to live in Los Angeles where we have so many talented people around us. Our co-producer Brian French is a personal friend of David Leaf who is a talented documentarian and a wonderful and giving person. David Leaf has directed such documentaries as “The U.S. vs. John Lennon”, “The Night James Brown Saved Boston,” and “Buddy Holly: Listen To Me – The Ultimate Buddy Party,” just to name a few. David has taken time out of his busy schedule to meet with us and answer any questions that we’ve had about his process of documentary filmmaking and publishing, and he has been so willing to help us in any way possible.  We feel very lucky to have him on our side.

Another documentarian that inspires me is Christy Turlington Burns. Christy Turlington Burns has worked in front of the camera as a model for many years—in front of the camera with no words, no voice of her own, and now she is a documentarian. She’s telling stories that are important to her. It’s what Sybil and I are doing. In the first phase of our careers, we told stories through movement and dance, and now we are using our voices. It’s very empowering.

Before we started shooting Pushing Motherhood, I came across a picture of Christy Turlington Burns shooting her documentary “No Women, No Cry.” Not only did she create an important piece of work, but she shot it as well. I remember thinking to myself, “I need to learn how to run a camera and set up lights and sound,” and that’s exactly what both Sybil and I did. That photo of her sits in my office.

What are you learning from this process?

LINDA: We are learning an incredible amount about so many things. Pushing Motherhood has been a part of our lives for over two years now. When we first started shooting, we were not the protagonists of the film, but it evolved into that. So it can sometimes be difficult putting ourselves out there in such a vulnerable way. We are by nature private people.

We have learned that sharing the truth is powerful and that if you are passionate about something and your intentions are in the right place, the real reward is in the process. Truly meaningful things take time, and within that time there are some really amazing gifts.

You are obviously tapping into a very real phenomenon -- an issue that will only develop as women have more options, live longer and the science improves.  Do you have a vision of what's next on the project horizon?

 SYBIL:  It would be interesting to do an investigation into the phenomenon of “unexplained infertility,” which is a common diagnosis among those who struggle with fertility issues. Some point to environmental factors, others attribute it ‘advanced maternal age’ (regarding older women), and new studies posit that DNA damage to sperm may be the problem. Additionally, stress and anxiety are silent culprits that can impede the reproductive system from fulfilling its most basic function of creating life. 

As advanced reproductive technology continues to improve and reproductive options such as egg freezing, egg donation, and “pushing motherhood” become more acceptable, it would be fascinating to document how the next generation contends with infertility, as once stigmatized options inevitably become normalized.

SYBIL AZUR is a first-time filmmaker and self-elected stay-at-home mom. Sybil is also a former professional dancer who began her career while still a teenager, and has shared a stage with Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Reba McEntire, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, and has appeared on numerous television shows and films. Also an actress for many years, she has co-starred on TV shows such as Nip/Tuck, The Game, and What I Like About You. Azur went back to school and graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with degrees in International Development, Afro-American Studies, and a minor in Geography. Sybil is thrilled to be creating a project that she is impassioned about.

LINDA CEVALLOS-FRENCH is a director, actress, and professional dancer who has had roles in Rent, Big Time Rush and ER, and has performed with numerous artists, including Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Reba McEntire, and is currently on tour with Smokey Robinson. She recently directed Smokey Robinsonʼs “Donʼt Know Why” music video, co-directed and choreographed Brian Rayʼs “This Way Up” and “Sucker For Love” music videos, and co-wrote and directed Smokey Robinson’s one man show “Words.” Linda studied at the prestigious California Institute of The Arts, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. As a first-time filmmaker, Linda is excited that all of her life experiences have led her to her newfound love of documentary filmmaking.

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