Haimy Assefa has been working in the digital film space for nearly six years and says that she has just recently begun to truly own the title of filmmaker. The art of storytelling is not something new to Assefa. She is a former professional journalist who has always used her skills to explore and examine the human experience, but now, she gets to do so in the documentary film space.
With Black Birth, Assefa tells a deeply personal story of three expectant mothers who connect and support each other during one of the most important, scariest, and least openly discussed aspects of human life—childbirth.
She calls Black Birth “a love letter to Black mothers” and it’s extremely apparent why. You’ll meet two pregnant women candidly sharing their journey and Assefa even turned the cameras on herself as she steps into the role of subject to share her own pregnancy experience in hopes of helping others.
The unique attention to this aspect of humanity is what caught the attention of the Queen Collective, a program launched by Procter & Gamble in partnership with Queen Latifah and Tribeca Studios to support up-and-coming women filmmakers who are committed to telling stories that focus on a social issue and inspires social change. Black Birth can be viewed on BET and BET Her as part of the Juneteenth celebration.
With the completion of Black Birth, Assefa sheds a necessary light on the need for community and support for Black mothers navigating pregnancy in the U.S. BET.com spoke to the Ethiopian American filmmaker about the power of storytelling and the necessity of including light and joy into our narratives.
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BET.com: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve received about filmmaking that you feel has served or helped you the most?
Haimy Assefa: Oh, wow. That’s a tough question. That’s a good question. Trust my gut when I go into a story or a documentary. I think it’s really easy to second guess yourself, especially when you’re interested in telling stories that aren’t already being told, and that don’t get the platforms already. It’s easy to ask, you know, is this really a story? Is there an audience? Are people interested in seeing this? I think over time, it’s been really affirming for me to tell these kinds of stories, which typically are about underrepresented communities, and to see the way that they’re received or the impact that they ended up having. It’s important to trust your gut as a storyteller.
BET.com: And what advice would you personally offer other documentary filmmakers who are interested in breaking into the industry?
Haimy Assefa: My advice to other filmmakers who are looking to tell stories in this space is to just do it. I know that’s probably not super comforting to hear, but I think it’s really easy to get caught up in making sure you have all the right pieces in place, whether it’s the right equipment, the right crew, the resources. Those are obviously all real and they can be challenging pieces to the puzzle, but you just have to use whatever tools are at your disposal and try to tell the stories that you think are important.
I would also say to build community with other filmmakers, other like-minded creatives who can be a source of inspiration and valuable collaborators for your project.
BET.com: How would you describe your experience of a Black woman in filmmaking. What has been your journey?
Haimy Assefa: You know, I’ve never thought about myself being a female and a person of color filmmaker as being a hurdle for me. I think those have been assets in a lot of ways and they are parts of my identity that I value a lot and get a lot of inspiration and empowerment from.
Now, in the industry, it’s obvious that we’re underrepresented and are not always seen, whether it’s in front of the camera or behind it as directors and producers. However, I don’t think that’s ever stopped me. There have definitely been interesting experiences or challenges along the way. One funny thing that would sometimes happen is I would call the person that I’d be filming with and have a whole conversation with them to set up the shoot. And I when I arrived with somebody who is assisting me on the shoot who happens to be a man, oftentimes a white man, they would often look to him to answer questions or expect him to be the director. It’s something that people do sort of implicitly, without even realizing that that’s what they’re doing.
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But I think it also reflects sort of what people see in the industry, right? Like, typically when we hear from documentary filmmakers in general, they’re often white, they’re often male. And so, it’s sort of what people are exposed to. I think one of the things that’s really amazing about Queen Collective is that it’s giving people an opportunity to see beyond what they’re used to seeing and expose people to a group of talented Black female filmmakers, which is pretty amazing.
BET.com: What aspects of filmmaking are you enjoying playing with the most to craft stories in a visual medium like film as opposed to writing about it?
Haimy Assefa: As a video journalist and now working as a director, I think being able to trust my own gut and choose the stories is incredibly empowering and important to me. And as a director, you have that autonomy to an extent where you get to identify, dig into and tell the stories that you find important or beautiful and that you know have to be told. And then on top of that, I’m a really visual person. So being able to tell these stories cinematically in a visually beautiful, compelling way—there is nothing better. I think I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.
BET.com: Let’s go back to your film Black Birth. Have your thoughts about birth changed after making this project and were there any myths or untruths that you set out to confront?
Haimy Assefa: This film follows three expectant mothers as they navigate and sort through the joys, hopes and fears of Black motherhood in America, and I chose to put myself in the film as well. And so that’s my voice that you hear at the beginning with my husband and I’m telling him that we’re having a baby. There’s an incredibly personal honesty that’s unlike any other film that I’ve made before. I wanted this to be a love letter, a love letter to Black mothers. I wanted them to feel seen, heard, and celebrated.
We know that in America, Black women are two to three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women. This is crazy and unacceptable and it’s also incredibly stressful, especially when you’re carrying a child knowing you have to contend with the reality that [we face limited] access to healthcare, prenatal care, education—those racial disparities still exist.
Black Birth is also my effort to bring us back to the joy and light of motherhood. It’s easy to be caught up in the heaviness of knowing those statistics and knowing what the odds look like, and to go to this dark place, and it was important for me not to live in that place. I set out to make a film that acknowledges and tries to deal with those realities and also celebrate those kinds of day-to-day mundane joys that celebrates us in our fullness as human beings.
BET.com: What kind of feedback are you hoping to receive?
Haimy Assefa: I hope that when the Black women, Black mothers, watch they know that having community, support and advocacy—all of those things are important. Black doulas and Black midwives have served a really important role in the history of this country, both in terms of helping to safely deliver Black women’s children for a long time, but also white women’s babies as well. And so now to sort of see this re-emergence of doulas and midwives is really beautiful because it’s working really hard to make sure that Black mothers and their babies can thrive. I would really love to see more elected officials and childcare providers take responsibility and make sure that Black women have equitable outcomes in childbirth.
BET.com: What can we expect from you next? Do you have an idea of what story you’ll want to tell that will be turned into your next film?
Haimy Assefa: I’m developing a feature-length documentary about police torture and reparations in this country. I’m also exploring other documentary directorial opportunities, and I just finished producing an episode of Explained on Netflix, which should be out I think later this summer or early fall. But mostly just [tell] more stories that offer new perspectives and allow people to be seen, and kind of challenge the status quo.