UW News

May 26, 2016

‘In Utero’ documentary featuring UW maternal-health expert screens May 31

News and Information

When Amelia Gavin got an email two years ago asking if she’d be willing to be interviewed for a new documentary, she was skeptical — but immediately recognized the name the producer mentioned.

“It was Gyllenhaal. I thought, well, could it be?” recalled Gavin, a UW associate professor of social work.

Indeed it was.

In Utero” was written, produced and directed by Kathleen Man Gyllenhaal and Stephen Gyllenhaal, stepmother and father of famous siblings and actors Jake and Maggie. The UW is hosting a free, public screening of the film at 6 p.m. May 31 that includes a Q&A with Gavin, UW senior lecturer in health services and global health Dr. Stephen Bezruchka and Dr. Gabor Maté, a best-selling author and expert on addiction and child development from Vancouver, British Columbia.

Amelia Gavin with twins Gavin, left and James Muhlfelder, son Ben Muhlfelder and husband Josh Muhlfelder.

Amelia Gavin with twins Gavin, left and James Muhlfelder, son Ben Muhlfelder and husband Josh Muhlfelder.Amelia Gavin

The film, which premiered at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, is described as “a cinematic rumination on what will emerge as the most provocative subject of the 21st century — life in the womb and its lasting impact on human development, human behavior and the state of the world.” It explores how the prenatal environment, combined with maternal experiences across generations, impact human development.

That’s a topic Gavin, who appears in the film as a featured expert, has spent years studying. She was awarded a National Institute of Mental Health Dissertation Grant for her graduate work on depression and birth outcomes among African-American women, and is the principal investigator on a research project looking at the link between risk factors in women’s lives and adverse birth outcomes.

Prenatal care is important, Gavin said, but it can’t mitigate the impact of stress throughout women’s lives on their physiology and, by extension, their babies.

“Nine months is too short a period of time to really deal with the health concerns and social conditions of women who are most at risk of delivering a preterm or low birth weight baby,” she said. “Both acute and chronic risk exposures across the life course, have important implications for mothers, which then have consequences for the next generation.”

The issue is both a professional and personal one for Gavin. Her great-grandmother had two sets of twins who died as infants, tragedies Gavin believes were linked to the stress associated with racism and marginalization. A mother to twin boys herself, Gavin said being interviewed by Stephen Gyllenhaal about her life was intense. The experience, she said, dredged up the worries she’d had, knowing what her great-grandmother went through, about how stresses in her life might impact her unborn children.

“As a scientist, you’re objective and try to present the facts, produce the research and move on,” she said. “But he got me to talk about my grandmother and my great-grandmother. It was really quite personal.”

The producers also wanted to film Gavin and her husband with their twin boys, then 8, and 1-year-old son. The older boys were in fine form, she said, hanging from branches on trees outside the family’s home on Queen Anne and jumping off a retaining wall at nearby Kerry Park.

“The minute the film crew showed up at our house, they started their usual twin antics,” she said, laughing.

Gavin admits she was nervous about seeing the finished documentary, but was ultimately pleased.

“To me, it highlights this really important piece of women’s health that doesn’t really get highlighted a lot,” she said. “A more comprehensive, life-course approach to women’s health is needed if we really want to address and reduce health disparities, especially around birth outcomes.”

The documentary screening will be held in Room 305 of the UW School of Social Work, 4101 15th Ave. NE. For planning purposes, attendees are asked to preregister online.