Review of Whitney McVeigh’s Birth: Origins at the End of Life
Birth: Origins at the End of Life (12 minutes). Directed by Whitney McVeigh.
What does the beginning of a life look like from the perspective of a woman navigating life’s end? Whitney McVeigh’s short, poignant film, Birth: Origins at the End of Life, provides an unexpected meditation on this subject.
Birth opens with images of tree branches. Some are barren, some are green, and others sway in the wind as crusty, desiccated leaves struggle to hold on. These images feel cold and remote. A breeze blowing through the vegetation further evokes a chill. Low-angle shots avoid backdrops, making the location anonymous, unknowable, and, at least initially, irrelevant. While the images feel distant and tentative, the serene voice of an older woman provides warmth and contrast to this scene. The voice describes how the act of giving birth is an act of creation. It sounds optimistic and sage.
The subtle tension between birth and death, creation and annihilation, plays out in a visual and aural dance between images of desolate trees and interviews with women. The women represent an array of backgrounds and while some are elderly, most look the age of recent retirees, still youthful in their aging. Each woman is filmed in the same location—a sparse room with a bookshelf as a backdrop.
Neither the room nor the early interview content reveals much about context. Each interviewee offers thoughts about giving birth or raising children. These comments are often broad, referencing the emotions connected with the moment of birth, meeting one’s new child, or the inevitability of the journey that lies ahead. The bookshelf in the background provides an unrelated visual. While the shelf might signal that the viewer is listening to a scholar or sitting in someone’s home office, the repose in the interviewees’ demeanors suggests a loose association with the space.
As the interviews unfold, it becomes clear that these women are in hospice care. They make soft references to nearing the end of life. While the film begins with broad discussions of birth and childbearing, it gradually hones in on specific illustrations and comments about how one’s perspective is shaped by impending death.
One of these illustrations offers a turning point in the narrative. A middle-aged woman seated in a wheelchair shares a story. Her speech is slightly impeded by an unknown condition, but her complexion is pink and vibrant. She recounts the death of her mother which occurred during the birth of one of the interviewee’s siblings. This is the only moment in the film when birth and death abut; there is no border between creation and cessation. Yet this moment does not stray from the theme of the film; birth and death have connections regardless of the intervals between the two.
At no time is there a visual or even aural cue to interpret the interviews as end-of-life musings. While some footage shows interviewees moving about manicured grounds, there’s no suggestion that they are dying. The interviewees exhibit a vitality and enthusiasm that betray their reality. Later, the discussion turns to the fact that the interviewees are at the end of their lives. Perhaps buoyed by the topic of birth, the interviewees are neither dour nor resigned. Instead, they share the insights they’ve gained while facing death: life moves quickly, leave happy memories behind, and appreciate what one has had.
The path to these final thoughts is rife with contentedness. One woman speaks of the changes a body goes through in the process of becoming a mother. She embraces this. Another discusses the need to let a child lead its own life. These women’s voices are void of regret.
The women of Birth are dignified and calm. It’s as if the act of remembering beginnings infuses each of them with a vitality unseen in the halls of most hospice care facilities. Ultimately, Birth is not solely about beginnings or endings. It’s about life in between these bookends. This film leaves the viewer with a sense of contentedness as she considers how impending death lends perspective to a full life.