On Pregnancy And Grace: An Interview With The Married Filmmakers Behind 40 Weeks

I am not a mother, nor have I ever been pregnant. The closest I've come to exercising maternal instincts in recent memory was a four-day dogsitting stint. Of course there is a whole universe of difference between birthing and raising a tiny human and caring for a curly-haired terrier—it is possibly offensive to even draw the comparison. But I invoke it to illustrate the incredible distance that exists between my daily life and those of moms and moms-to-be. This is further demonstrated by my stress level corresponding to my infinitesimal capacity as a caretaker of a terrier, which went up. A lot. I'd pop into the office during my dog-sitting days and proclaim "It's not about just me anymore! I am caring for two now!"

Again, I only invoke this anecdote of somewhat frivolou

s dog-sitting-related anxiety to suggest that it is completely beyond the gray matter between my ears to even begin conceiving (ha!) of bringing life into this world and all that entails.

But that's not to say it doesn't utterly fascinate—even astound—me: The fact that I possibly possess the ability to someday, maybe, in the distant, distant future, create life itself boggles my mind. Not to mention, as a human being, I, by definition, was birthed (thanks Mom!). So even though I couldn't be further from stepping into the motherhood ring myself, the process of how we all get here is one I think we don't explore enough.

Happily, a recent documentary, 40 Weeks, does just that. An unscripted film that follows the week-to-week journey of 13 women and their families as they create life, 40 Weeks succeeds in capturing, in rich depth and complexity, everything that goes into pregnancy, preparation for motherhood and birth—all in a way that resonates even for someone who gets stressed out over terrier-sitting.

It's a film that's both informative and funny, beautiful while tackling some of the messiest moments of humanity. More crucially, perhaps, it works to create a community—a rare honest space where women and their partners share their deepest fears and greatest struggles (as well as biggest cravings and humorous pregnancy-induced lapses in memory). Packed in equal measure with heart and helpful medical facts, 40 Weeks is certainly a film I'd watch again—likely on repeat—with tremendous gratitude, were motherhood ever to materialize as a reality in my own life.

To learn more about the movie, we reached out to the married filmmaking team behind the project, wife and producer Dominique Debroux and husband and documentarian Christopher Henze. Here, they graciously share their inspiration for the project, what they learned in the process of making it, and their goals for future films and their company Big Belli.

Why make this film? Was there any specific experience that catalyzed the idea?

Dominique Debroux: For me, it was the two main needs that I had when I was pregnant. As I was 42 when I was pregnant with our daughter, I didn't have girlfriends who were pregnant at the same time I was. I was amazed at how much I missed not going through the experience within the context of a community. Within a few weeks of finding out I was pregnant, I had turned from a more self-sufficient career woman to wanting to join quilting or crafting circles—had I had time, I would have. Then I came down with 24/7 morning sickness and reading became a real chore, but I still wanted to know all about the changes going on in my body. So I just started complaining to Christopher, who would either read to me or try to find movies for me to watch. The scientific documentaries that he found fed some informational needs but I still missed the community and still wanted to find out how other women where dealing with this whole process.

Christopher Henze: When I watched Dominique go through her pregnancy, I was totally taken by the process. How she was able to deal with all the different issues that were thrown at her was wonderful to watch. I then, being a documentarian, started to talk with other women about their pregnancies and I could see how when I talked about a common pregnancy milestone, I learned about their lives. I thought, how beautiful.

Pregnancy is both completely individual and universal at the same time.

Why did you decide to structure the documentary week by week, as opposed to another format?

DD: There are so many changes that happen within small periods of time during this journey that it seemed the most logical format—to go step by step.

CH: I decided to call the movie 40 Weeks because I could see from my observations of pregnancy that the changes that occur from one week to the next are dynamic and dramatic enough to tell the story. Also, 40 weeks has become the standard description for the term of pregnancy. We certainly created a challenge for ourselves, in having to conduct interviews that often, but I wanted to make a movie that could best honor the process, and week-by-week seemed like the right way to do that.

How, if at all, did the project evolve as you filmed it? What caused this, if so?

CH: The basic structure and intent has remained the same from the moment I had the idea, to give something back to women and pay homage to the process of pregnancy. I added and balanced, from the influence of Dominique, the amount of practical information for moms-to-be, and that became the final form of the movie. The most important discovery for me over the production of 40 Weeks was how important the fundamentally graceful nature of women enduring the suffering and changes brought on by their pregnancies is to the future of all of us. Actually, I’d have to say I’m still learning about grace and am in awe of what it could actually be.

Christopher, in the film too, you reflect on this awe as a man witnessing the pregnancy process. Did you have any concerns about directing this film focused on a distinctly female experience?

CH: I actually think it was a benefit for me to take such an intense look at something that defines women. My outside perspective allows me to see the language of being female from a more naive place. It’s not my “mother-tongue” so I could search for meaning and information that a native speaker wouldn’t. It’s also what documentarians do: Our job is to educate ourselves about the world we examine and bring our findings to the story in the most truthful way we can.

What was it like working on this film together as a couple? How did each of your unique experiences—as the woman who was pregnant, and the man who was with her during the pregnancy—come to bear on the film?

DD: From the beginning of the process I kept pushing for “enough” information to be in the film. However, as I started seeing all the footage from the families, I realized that the emotional connection to the journey is also so important and I hadn’t realized that. Christopher kept telling me throughout my pregnancy, too, that I didn't realize what an amazing thing we women do when we have babies. I now understand and agree—I think women are sometimes too grounded and matter-of-fact. Since we have the biological capability to have babies, we don’t realize what an accomplishment it is. Christopher helped me, and I think all the women in the film, realize that. I hope viewers get that too.

CH: I love to learn about new things and particularly things that affect all of us. So I was a pretty intense student of the process of pregnancy before I even set out to make the movie. That said, I would say that understanding what Dominique went through helped, but even more crucial for me is our 25-year relationship—learning how to communicate with her and other women, that was a great help for the project.

Dominique is a brilliant producer; she doesn’t micro-manage and will only intervene to help guide the process. I have total trust in how she manages the business of Big Belli and I hope she has the same trust in how I make the content. Since our main job concentrations are different and we have a lot of trust for each other, we usually have a pretty easy time of working together.

Why did you decide to have Christopher narrate the film, instead of Dominique?

DD: First off, he is the filmmaker and so was most deeply in the day-to-day process. Secondly, I think that because he is an outsider working deeply to understand the process, he can truly communicate his amazement without a doubt as to whether he has an inner comparison on how he "would have done it.”

CH: The choice to narrate was a simple one. Our moms are talking to someone, we need to connect that to the person they were talking to—and that was me. Once I was narrating, there is also the opportunity to express some of my motivation and journey in making the film. I’m actually a very shy person and the thought of having to do narration terrified me, I sort of thought it could be someone else, but other voices didn’t serve the piece so I got over my fear and did it.

Was there anything you learned during the filming process that you didn't know during your own experience with pregnancy?

DD: All the ways that I perceived I was the only one who felt something as deeply as I did—from worries to guilt to joys and love—I realized are all very universal. I feel like part of such a big community now. People must think I am nuts now because any pregnant woman I see, or moms in general, I just bust out with a huge smile. At first they give me a “what-the-heck” look, but most return the huge smile: We know the ultimate joy.

One of the most poignant narratives centers on the woman battling cancer during her pregnancy. Can you tell us more about her story? What was your goal in sharing it with moms-to-be?

CH: From what I observed, pregnancy is all about going through issues—issues that can range from fairly mundane to the extremes of life and death. Not every woman will experience each extreme, but their journeys are defined by how they deal with each instance. Liz dealt with her challenges in a way I thought was inspirational; she didn’t coat herself in misery and wear it to keep people away. Her saying, “You can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you deal with it” sums it up, and I hope that she becomes an inspiration to women who watch the movie.

As far as more about her story I’d prefer that people who are interested search for it. Me providing more information separates her from the other moms and that’s not fair to them. Every family in the film has futures after their pregnancies—and each is different. We’re also filming the sequel to 40 Weeks called One: Baby’s First Year, which will cover what happens after the babies come home.

You also feature a lesbian couple in the film. Was this a conscious choice, to show diversity among the couples? How did you select the couples to spotlight?

DD: We had a casting director, we blanketed OB and fertility clinics with notices, posted on Mommy sites, and sent out notices through all our friends and families and our team’s friends and families. We ended up interviewing close to 50 families and narrowed it down to just over 20 and then 18 stayed with us. 13 are in the film and the rest will be on the website.

We wanted, as much as possible in a two-hour film, to show as much of the range of types of families, cultural and racial backgrounds, and pregnancy stories as we could to represent what the U.S. is today. In general, I think we were able to. That said, we were not able to show everything we wanted. For instance, the current statistics show that around 40% of pregnancies are to single women, and we only had two single women answer our castings and stay with us through the process. Another pregnancy story that we tried to cast was surrogacy, but we were unable to find both a surrogate and the family she was carrying the child for who wanted to share their story.

CH: We were primarily interested in covering different issues of pregnancy. Phoebe and Jen had the issue of Hyperemesis and that served the story. The fact that they are also a same-sex family adds another layer and satisfies our desire for diversity, but it was never a primary driver in their selection.

What kind of response have you received to the film, and is it what you expected?

DD: We are really happy that both men and women are emotionally moved by the film and are entertained by it. I have been pleasantly surprised by how many viewers are stating that it is a needed resource for pregnancy. It's what I know I needed and am happy that my needs are universal.

CH: The feedback has been wonderful. I’m so grateful that I have been able to express my vision for this movie so close to my intent. Moms are remembering their experiences and moms-to-be are getting an idea of what’s next. The funniest unexpected occurrence from the screening we’ve done so far is how many women tell me that they were on the fence about having another child but are now committed. One couple from NY told me “we’re heading home, NOW, I’m ovulating.”

The film is tied in with the launch of the company Big Belli, "a parenting content media and social networking brand." Can you talk more about this company? What's its mission?

DD: First of all there is only so much information and different stories that you can fit into a two-hour movie, so the website is a needed extension. Also, although the existing sites have great information on them, none of them have filmed information that you can assimilate easily (even as you multitask—common in today’s busy lives) and that gives you at least a virtual sense of community. Because you are not only watching information from experts, but also from the mouths of other women/families going through the same issues/questions.  

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