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Birthright (1958)

Courtesy of the Family Planning Association

Main image of Birthright (1958)
35mm, black and white, 25 mins
Directed bySarah Erulkar
ProductionBasic Films Ltd
CompaniesSamaritan Films
SponsorFamily Planning Association
Produced byLeon Clore
Written bySarah Erulkar
CameramanWolfgang Suschitzky
CommentaryMargaret Rawlings

Discussion participants: Sir Russell Brain (President of the Family Planning Association); Professor W.C.W. Nixon (obstetrician); Dr. Alan Parkes (reproductive biologist)

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A study of world population problems, incorporating a detailed analysis of the problems of birth control.

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Birthright, which presents the work of the Family Planning Association, is a valuable record of the organisation of contraception and fertility services before the introduction of the contraceptive pill. But, more than this, in its filmmaking style it conveys much about the social attitudes of this era, and the spirit in which those services were conceived and delivered. Much of the actual content is liberal and supportive of women who wish to spread the births of their children, of infertile couples, and of those forced into illegal abortions, for example. But throughout, there is a nagging air of deference to middle class values and to doctors and senior professional figures.

The film starts with a hospital birth, accompanied by commentary from the actress Margaret Rawlings, who states the film's thesis, that 'a child's development as a person depends on many things, but above all on whether he is wanted or not.' A happy family with six children is compared with a cramped family of similar size living in squalor where the mother is not coping. A section on the infertility work - both male and female - of the FPA follows. Unlike other films of the period, there is some live-action sound, but the use of amateur actors, presumably without a detailed script, is awkward, with jump cuts producing an unintended slightly surreal tone in places. Here the use of 'real people' - an old documentary principle - has the unfortunate effect of making the Association's clients seem inarticulate. Birthright features as a 'sound adviser', Daphne Oram, the founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; her touch can be heard at various points in the film as she processes sounds with filters, tape delays and reverberation.

The 300 clinics country-wide of the FPA are presented, where women can discuss sex problems, and engaged couples discuss "the many aspects of married life". The final major section of the film segues via some Third World library footage to discussion about population growth and the global context of malnutrition, extends to illegal abortions in Britain and the development of new forms of contraception. At least two of these experts were associated with the Eugenics Society in the period when it was moving away from the hardline biological reductionism views of the inter-war period. The roots of the FPA had been close to the Society; in fact they shared premises for some years.

Tim Boon

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977'.

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Video Clips
1. Natural birthright (3:32)
2. Personal difficulties (5:20)
3. Unsatisfactory methods (3:06)
Erulkar, Sarah (1923-)
Postwar Documentary