Professor of History Paves Way for Fine Film

The Making of 'A Midwife's Tale' Film produced and written by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt Based on the book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

"WELL, I WISH IT WERE A MORE dramatic story..." So begins Professor of History Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in describing the discovery of the diary that led to her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Midwife's Tale. On the contrary, her fifteen-year journey from the discovery of eighteenth-century midwife Martha Ballard's diary to the Boston premiere of Laurie Kahn-Leavitt's film production of her story, is a tale in itself.

Ulrich, who raised a family of five while making her way through graduate school part-time, stumbled across the diary of Martha Ballard at the Maine State Library while researching another project. The culmination of eight years of work on the diary is "A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812."

First Came the Book...

"My first task was to find a way to discover the patterns of her life through this kind of unwieldy source," explained Ulrich. "And then the second process was linking the diary to a whole range of other sources that helped me build a world around the diary."

Ulrich's painstaking efforts were recognized in 1991 with the Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as more academic awards including the Bancroft.

When asked about her reaction to such critical and popular success, she responds, "Oh - surprised, shocked, overwhelmed, all of those things. This wasn't something I expected in any way, shape or form. It really changed my life. All this attention - I thought of myself as doing something that I thought was important that might be interesting to a particular marginal group. It was really astonishing to me that something like women's history, sort of a modest enterprise, would make a difference in our definition of history in general."

A Movie is Born

Producer Kahn-Leavitt, who came up with the idea of the film project, actively searched for material on pre-photographic history while working for WGBH on the American Experience series for PBS.

"One day I read about this book based on this incredible, massive 27-year diary of a midwife and a healer. And I went out the next day and I bought it and dovoured it," Kahn-Leavitt explained.

Thus began Kahn-Leavitt's five-year quest to bring Martha's life to film. Her vision was "to show a real person with this massive cryptic diary."

"Through her work with this diary, she becomes increasingly connected to this woman in the past as she pieces it all together and earns her entry into that world."

Like the book that engendered it, the film crosses many boundaries in terms of genre. Ultimately, it seems to lie on the documentary side of docudrama, because so much of it is based on truth.

But Kahn-Leavitt stresses, "I don't care what it is, it's its own beast."

Ulrich agrees: "The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History, and I think that is appropriate... it's not a conventional biography, it's really a work of social history."

A Wrinkle in Time

Kahn-Leavitt saw all the suggestive possibilities of the "seemingly opaque and meaningless" passages of Martha's diary. "Laurel pieced it together and made it all begin to fit in, and I wanted to create the same experience on film."

Many long interviews and probing question facilitated the development of the screenplay from the book. To work out the kinks about dialogue and production, Kahn-Leavitt conducted workshops to try out the screenplay in actuality.

"We wanted to be very honest about what we did and did not know, but we had to make guesses in order to create a three dimensional world."

Ulrich collaborated on drafts and made suggestions. "I thought [working on the set] was fun...and I loved working with Laurie."

Everyone involved in the project was immensely concerned with being true to the book and to Martha's history. When asked about difficulties encountered in the process of bridging the gap between book and film, Ulrich considers for a moment.

"Yes, there was an amazing effort to not only tell the story of Martha Ballard but also to talk about how scholars create a work of history. It's a different product because it's a different product because it's a different medium, different assumptions, different needs. I think there are pretty important differences; the film is much richer and more complete in terms of conveying a visual world. On the other hand there are things that books can do that films absolutely can't. I think that there is a historical complexity in the book that is not in the film."

The almost complete absence of dialogue is one dilemma that the filmmakers had to wrestle with. Because Ulrich has no record of any spoken interaction amongst Martha and her family, it was challenging to decide how to depict their relationships with each other.

The scene in which the audience becomes especially aware of this absence is the sequence in which the family is preparing for morning chores. Six people work together on various tasks, including making the beds, yet no one speaks. How did the filmmakers make the characters real for the audience and establish a sympathetic rapport?

Director Dick Rogers, who is a VES professor, addresses the situation: "There's the whole problem of how to keep the piece moving. It turns out to be not so difficult because film is very visual and the diary is so powerful. The great contribution that the actors make was to make their actions real, which means that they had to feel their action."

The visual element worked particularly well in the sequence in which Martha's son takes over her house without her knowledge or consent. Even without dialogue, the sense of pain and frustration is evident in Lee's depiction of Martha's defeated spirit. Ulrich's voice-overs also serve to acknowledge those gaps in information that may prevent the audience from sharing an emotional immediacy with the characters.

Toeing the Line

But the real blurring of fact and fiction comes in the minute details. Ulrich recalls that the tense part about making the film was realizing how much she didn't know. Watching others create the world around Martha was a humbling experience, because despite all the time she spent with Martha's diary, Ulrich could not know what she ate or what the villagers wore. And yet her keen sense of historical accuracy bristled at the thought of glossing over even trivial points. She describes the preparation of the tavern dinner scene:

"I saw the food laid out in the prop area before they set the table, and I just died! Come on, frozen corn? Iceberg lettuce? We're talking about the eighteenth century! But then it was fun to watch the prop guy come out and mess up the food like it had been eaten. And then once you get the distance and the camera angle, it didn't matter what was on those plates - he had the right look."

Because the film toes the line between a straight factual account and a dramatization based loosely on history, it struggles to reconcile the two extremes. As a result, like the book that engendered it, the film crosses many boundaries in terms of genre. Ultimately, it seems to lie on the documentary side of docudrama, because so much of it is based on truth.

But Kahn-Leavitt stresses, "I don't care what it is, it's its own beast." Ulrich agrees: "The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History, and I think that is appropriate...it's not a conventional biography, it's really a work of social history."

From the viewer's perspective, it is obviously more history than drama, but the reenactments cast an air of artificiality on the very facts it needs to stay true to. In fact, the film seems intended to get people thinking about how history is created and how it is created out of documents.

What results is an experimental hybrid of both genres. At some points, Ulrich acknowledges that the artistic needs of the film supersede the historical accuracy of the film, but "it will be for others to see if this collaboration worked. Too much historian? Not enough? But this is the risk that Laurie took in making the film. I think this is an exciting project because of that risk."

The purpose of the film becomes clearer when one considers the intended audience: Kahn-Leavitt's vision of the film as an educational tool includes targeting the schools and classrooms and universities, not general audiences.

Back to the Future

As for the upcoming plans for "A Midwife's Tale," Kahn-Leavitt is excited about its air date on PBS next year and about plans for a CD-ROM and web site. The next step, she says, is to find a theatrical distributor to place the film in art houses throughout the country.

Ulrich is currently working on a new book about work and labor in rural New England in relation to international trade, based on artifacts as well as diaries and letters.

Ultimately, Kahn-Leavitt's open-ended interpretation of "A Midwife's Tale" jives well with Ulrich's own goals for her work: "to take something that seemingly tells us nothing and interpret it and put it together so that we can implement it to try to understand something about gender and culture."