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Maia Martiniak • Director of Unseen

“I cannot tolerate violence against women in any form”


- Cineuropa talks to Slovakian director Maia Martiniak, whose latest, award-winning work, Unseen, looks at different forms of violence against women during birth as well as subsequent trauma

Maia Martiniak • Director of Unseen

Maia Martiniak, a Slovakian director and production manager of documentary films and television programming, has dedicated her work to topics such as the environment, development cooperation, and the rights of children and women. In her latest project, her feature-length documentary debut, Unseen [+see also:
interview: Maia Martiniak
film profile
, she looks at different forms of violence during the birthing process and the trauma that can follow. The film was unveiled earlier this year at CPH:DOX and recently won the main prize as well as the Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival One World in Slovakia (see the news).

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Cineuropa: Unseen focuses on “the dark side of obstetrics”. Why did you choose this topic?
Maia Martiniak: I had already come across the negative experiences women had from childbirth in my bachelor's film Zuna. I did not want to believe that anyone could encounter disrespect, manipulation, or even violence perpetrated by medical staff during birth. I started to research the issue more and I found out that some women were truly leaving hospitals with trauma. When I arrived at this issue, I could no longer back out and I had to prepare the film. I cannot tolerate violence against women in any form.

Is the topic still taboo?
Indeed it is, and not just in Slovakia. According to American psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, violence is repeatedly forgotten in the history of mankind. It is a kind of protection that we have set up in order to function in this world. But as she writes in her book "Trauma and Recovery," the truth always comes out. Furthermore, obstetric violence is all the more complicated because it unfolds behind the doors of obstetricians, where doctors and midwives often stick together. If violence happens, they tolerate it to some extent as part of their work and do not even have a safe space to be aware of it. A woman at childbirth is exposed, she is in a vulnerable position with little opportunity to realise the violence she is being subjected to, or to be able to protect herself against it in any way at that moment. It is a very complicated problem and it is up to the entire society to pay attention to this issue.

Childbirth trauma is a sensitive, intimate, and controversial issue. How did you prepare for the film?
I started the preparations in 2014 when I first began gathering information about the topic. I was wondering what could cause trauma and what childbirth could look like without medical intervention. I was in contact with several experts from different countries. Through them, I met my protagonists Stella, Lucia, and Melody. I could approach women during childbirth thanks to cooperation with midwives in hospitals. They provided us with their consent. Due to the invasion of their privacy, they were assured that they could review the footage and they gave us additional permission for the final cut.

Did you have to adjust your working methods?
Of course. My only intention was to "not interfere". Since I opted for the observational method, we had to adjust to new situations constantly and shoot more footage than we actually needed. We put together the final cut only in the editing room and connected the dramaturgical dots to create a comprehensive portrait of a traumatised woman and the events that preceded that situation. At the same time, we — my editor Mária Hirgelová and I — paid attention so that women already suffering from childbirth trauma could also watch the film without experiencing further trauma.

Why does the film take place in four countries?
I felt from the beginning that this topic was not just a local problem. It happens in other countries, too. The only difference is in how the professional public and society react to it. It was not my intention to compare the countries with each other, but rather to put the stories together to create a portrait of a traumatised woman, her inner world, and what she really had to face. That is the reason why we have women at different stages of the birth process. We wanted to emphasise that every woman experiences this process differently and that no two births are the same. We need to see the context in order to be able to truly understand the issue of childbirth trauma and to be sensitive to what violence at birth is. Even invisible violence such as disrespectful behavior, intimidation or psychological abuse fall under the definition of violence and are all the more dangerous because they are often tolerated by society.

The film was in the making for seven years. Did major changes occur in that time?
I knew what kind of film I wanted to make from the beginning. Unseen would be the same after three years of work. It took a lot of effort to convince others that this issue exists and that the film deserves financial support. On this seven-year journey, I experienced a lot of rejection. The fact that I wasn't facing it alone made me persevere and finish the film. But we haven't won yet. The film requires much more work than standard films. Since we have still not found a sales agent or international distributors, we must also consider unconventional theatrical releases abroad.

Are you working on other projects?
I would like to return to my topic of the ecology of being, which is already knocking on my door, and we have even received the first support from the Slovak Audiovisual Fund. At the same time, I already have other ideas on my mind, I just have to find time to materialise them. I believe that everything will eventually work out at the right moment and the new film will arrive sooner than in seven years.

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