By Katie Chambers
NYWIFT Member Elivia Shaw is a producer and co-editor of the fascinating new documentary How to Have an American Baby, which just made its New York Premiere at DOC NYC 2023. The film is a nuanced, behind-the-scenes look into the booming shadow economy catering to pregnant Chinese tourists who travel to America to give birth in order to obtain U.S. citizenship for their babies.
Told through a series of observational vignettes, and with extraordinary access to the maternity hotel industry and their clients, the film outlines the invisible contours of the underground birth tourism industry and its unexpected actors in the U.S. and China, while probing deeply into the lives of several protagonists caught up in the phenomenon. What results is an intimate and compassionate portrait of women’s reproductive journeys, family, traditions, and capitalist desires.
Shaw spoke to us about her collaboration with director Leslie Tai and the unique joys and challenges of the project.
Congratulations on your DOC NYC screening! What does inclusion in the festival mean to you?
Thank you! Our team was so excited to participate. DOC NYC is particularly meaningful to me because it was the first festival to screen a short film that I directed and edited along with Paloma Martinez in 2018. So it was a really important experience for us and one in which we felt a strong connection to our documentary community. I’m also a former New Yorker, so it’s always a pleasure to share work with the DOC NYC audience.
How did this project come to you and what inspired you to get involved?
I was a big fan of director Leslie Tai’s short films before we met, so when she reached out to me looking for an AE for her wonderful NYT Op-Doc, My American Surrogate, I was thrilled at the chance to work with her. She was simultaneously working on How to Have an American Baby and asked me to continue working with her on the feature.
Leslie’s unique perspective, the sense of humor and the complexity of her work as well as the chance to learn how to build a feature-length film in the edit were all big motivations. It was also a chance to dive into a world that I had very little knowledge of and had the privilege to learn so much about – and help to bring out the universal truths that are always at the heart of the best films. I also really respected the way that Leslie wanted to portray and emphasize the birth experience in this film.
Tell us more about your collaboration and creative process with director Leslie Tai.
Leslie shot and directed the film herself, so she knew every piece of footage very well and had a strong idea of the larger themes and ultimate structure. The kaleidoscopic nature of the film with its multiple characters and layers was a challenge that the amazing Iva Radivojević had begun with Leslie. Leslie and I dug deeply into the years of footage, and I would take the selects for each character and iterate scenes that we would pass back and forth until we felt satisfied.
Once we had a strong sense of the possibilities for each character, we began experimenting with interweaving them in different ways to build the full world and industry that defined these women’s experiences. Then of course, we had to re-cut and lose a lot of what we created in service of the larger structure and themes of the film that we wanted to express. That process of defining the most important elements as elegantly and simply as we could and trusting our audience to have space to navigate this complex world was the most important learning experience for me, among so many others.
The film has a lot to say about American culture, Chinese culture, relations between the two countries, motherhood, the healthcare system, and all the ways that all of these ideas intersect. How do you as an editor and producer approach so many themes at once and help achieve clarity without doing any disservice to the intellectual complexity?
I think with this film, all of these incredible ideas were so baked into the footage and the world Leslie managed to create that our job as editors was largely to simplify, universalize and leave enough space for our audience to mull in the scenes and ordering of elements. We had to avoid over-explaining or worrying that every layer and idea would be completely clear and ensure that there was a strong emotional core to the film. In this case, I also think the kaleidoscopic, multi-character, somewhat risky overall structure of the film is ultimately what allows it to feel so layered and complex. So the effort we put into experimentation and time for that to “congeal” was really key.
What did you learn during the making of this film that most surprised you?
I learned so much on this film I don’t know where to start. But if I had to share one lesson, I think it would be to trust in the complexity of what you want to express – in this case it meant a lot of trial and error with the structure but by sticking with Leslie’s conviction about it I believe we created something that you can watch over and over again and see something new in each time from a huge range of perspectives and life experiences.
What was your favorite moment making this film? And your biggest challenge?
My favorite moments were those initial explorations of the vast, endlessly fascinating footage and building the initial scenes – Leslie also had hilarious naming conventions for the footage which we quickly adapted into our conversations about the edit so our shared shorthand for the project makes me laugh to this day.
The biggest challenge was losing so many amazing scenes and characters. There are several more films to be made out of what Leslie shot during production of this film.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
There’s so much going on in this film but for me, after years of living with the footage and seeing the film over and over again, I think that the strength of mothers is beautifully expressed within the context of our complex world in this film.
What kinds of projects excite you?
I’m really excited by projects that take risks and constantly re-define the documentary “genre.” Also, films that emphasize sound as much as image.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on my first feature as a director, which takes place in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I’ve been lucky to receive wonderful support from an early stage through ITVS’ documentary development fellowship and SFFILM’s Residency Program. I’m also looking for my next editing project and hope to get to collaborate with other amazing filmmakers in the future.
How to Have an American Baby will have its premiere on POV December 11th! Check local PBS listings for details.
Elivia Shaw is an award-winning filmmaker originally from Washington, DC. Her work has been featured on the Atlantic and PBS and screened at festivals including AFI DOCS, DOC NYC and Big Sky. Her short film The Clinic won awards at seven film festivals including AFI Fest. She previously worked on documentaries for Al Jazeera, PBS and HBO. Elivia was a Co-Producer on Natalia Almada’s USERS, winner of the Directing Award at Sundance 2021 and is a Co-Editor and Co-Producer on Leslie Tai’s How to Have an American Baby which premiered at the 2023 True False Film Festival. She is currently directing a feature documentary about California’s Central Valley which received the 2022 ITVS Documentary Development Fellowship. She is a graduate of Stanford University’s Documentary MFA program where she has also taught film production.
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