SFFILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Midwives is a feature documentary by Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing filmed over five years. It follows two women working together as midwives in an isolated village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state where the Rohingya minority live. Thus, against a backdrop of escalating tensions, murderous mobs looking for blood, and all-out civil war, we meet Hla and Nyo Nyo. Hla, one of the few Buddhists helping in this rural area, operates a makeshift health clinic with her husband. Nyo Nyo is a Muslim whose family has lived in the region for generations. She trains under Hla and works as a translator for the patients.
Calling them midwives seems reductive, considering they are the only health providers in this region. People come to the clinic seeking all kinds of treatments, from typhoid fever to scratches, child illnesses, and, of course, birth delivery. They assist everyone the best they can with whatever is available on hand, and it is awe-inspiring to see them in action. Coming from a place of privilege, one might question some of their methods, but as mentioned, they simply don’t always have the resources necessary to provide adequate care.
Midwives takes time to explore Nyo Nyo’s motivation, and we learn that her aim is not only to be of service to the locals but also to earn enough money to leave for a better place. Despite the bleakness of her reality and inability to obtain paperwork, she still dreams of moving to a big city or a place without war. Nyo Nyo wants to go to school, live comfortably, and enjoy the luxuries of the world even from a distance, or at least be able to see something else. It is quite poignant and a peculiar testament to resilience, to observe this woman so resolute and full of hope thinking about things as mundane as fashion in times when bombs and gunshots can be heard nearby.
“…two women working together as midwives in an isolated village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state…”
As months fly by, the filmmaker does her best to illustrate the chaos happening in the country via various footage as well as interviewees’ reactions to the news. Then, when hostilities intensify outside the town gates, we witness the villagers in dire situations being trapped without access to international or humanitarian aides. And so is the clinic, as Hla is unable to obtain even the basic medications.
Nevertheless, no amount of tyranny or “recommended” ethnic division will make her budge. Hla and her husband know that they are putting their lives at risk, but for reasons unfortunately not well-explored, they are ready to pay the price. However, the dichotomy between how someone like Hla can be so brave and compassionate yet often be casually racist and acting viciously toward the people she nurses is simply baffling! There is no doubt she makes for a fascinating subject, if not a great flawed character with inexplicable behaviours.
Midwives partially plays like a feature film, especially in its second half, when it takes a more contemplative approach with emotional “slice of life sequences” and moves swiftly across years with touches of humour. We see the effects war has on everybody, how the relationship between the protagonists evolves, and how their lives and ambitions change or not. Ultimately, it presents a strange yet affecting “love/hate” story between two strong-headed independent women constantly reminded that they are but only the product of their desolated, warmongering patriarchal environment. As such, even though they belong on opposite sides of a violent conflict, they are not so different in their complexities and fearlessness.
Midwives screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and the 2022 SFFILM Festival.
"…the filmmaker does her best to illustrate the chaos happening..."