#HotDocs22 ‘Midwives’ Review: An Intimate Look at Medical Care Inside a War Zone

One of the oldest medical professions is in the spotlight with Midwives, which had its Canadian premiere at this year’s HotDocs Film Festival. The film originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received a jury award. Midwives tells a story about the friendship between two women in the midst of genocide and violence. 

Director Snow Hnin El Hlaing brings viewers the story of a Buddhist midwife, Hla, and her Muslim apprentice Nyo Nyo in the middle of war-torn Myanmar. The genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority in this country was given its 15 minutes of the spotlight before everyone promptly moved on for…reasons (spoiler alert – the reasons are racism). Midwives takes a personal look at how this genocide impacts real people who call Myanmar home. 

It’s a simple enough story, two healthcare professionals working together for the benefit of their community. However, their story is a compelling one. Their human interactions and conflicts are all too relatable. They’re two imperfect humans, caught up in circumstances far beyond themselves. At the end of the day, everything comes back to providing care to people who otherwise would be turned away because of their identities.

The religious and cultural divides between these two communities is captured so perfectly on this small scale within the walls of this clinic. It’s so clear that so many of these racist attitudes run incredibly deep, even while Hla and her husband are ultimately trying to do good. Hla is often captured using racist language toward Nya Nya and other Muslim patients. She becomes a symbol of how these attitudes have circulated among otherwise reasonable people. It’s sobering.

Paradoxically, Hla risks her life daily as the operator of this clinic, providing care to the most marginalized in this country. The moments of pain are interwoven with moments of triumph and progress. Hla’s influence is clearly an inspiration to Nyo Nyo, whose journey through this movie is an inspirational one. The two rely on each other to provide the best possible care. The fact that Nyo Nyo, her family, and her community are still treated as outsiders is so incredibly heartbreaking. 

In addition to the cultural commentary, Midwives is a poignant reminder of how essential these professionals are to healthcare systems the world over. Historically, the deaths of women in childbirth and post-partum sky-rocketed when the care of pregnant people went from midwives to physicians. There’s an intimate knowledge of the birthing experience that transcends this minimally equipped clinic.

Ultimately, Midwives is a bittersweet look at people caught up in conflicts raged by those who will never know the average person. This movie is a tribute to the experience of birth and pregnancy and showcases how strong women are when faced with the most crushing adversity. It’s an honest and unvarnished look at a complex political situation that has very real consequences for real people every day.

Midwives has its Canadian Premiere at the HotDocs Film Festival on May 1, 2022.

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