When the Oscar-nominated filmmakers behind Detropia and Jesus Camp visited the Minnesota State Fair, they witnessed more than just parades and butter sculptures. In a Beast TV exclusive, watch Day One, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s arresting short film on the fair’s most popular exhibit and the latest in our Doc Incubator series.
I was born in Minnesota. I’ve never really lived there, but my entire family does, and every summer I visit them. And we, along with close to 2 million other people, go to the Minnesota State Fair, the biggest fair in the country. It is a fabulous tradition that includes endless parades, all varieties of foods on sticks, an all-you-can-drink milk bar, butter sculptures, and a mosaic of Michael Jackson made of peanut shells. It’s a good time.
A few years ago I was strolling the grounds with my aunts and cousins, and saw a plain, cinder-block building with a sign that said MIRACLE OF BIRTH. At the time my co-director, Heidi Ewing, and I were wrapping up 12th & Delaware, a grueling and intense film on the pro-life movement, and I was sure similar proselytizing was going on inside. I pictured booths with graphic pamphlets of mangled babies and plastic fetus dolls. I had to take a peek.
The building was packed. There were thousands of people smashed inside. There was an announcer droning on and on about something. I wanted to catch what it was everyone was so pressed to see—this must be the grossest, freakiest anti-abortion presentation in the world, I thought.
When I finally pushed to the front, I saw a large round pen with a lone cow in the center. Not just any cow. A lady cow with the largest, most terrified eyes I had ever seen. She was looking at me. And she was saying, get me the fuck out of here.
Everything came into sharp focus. The announcer said brightly, “She is completely effaced right now, and she just lost her mucus plug.” OMG. She was giving birth. The phrase “don’t have a cow” popped into my head. What were we all doing here? Why was everyone watching this, casually eating cotton candy and fried pickles on a stick while this poor gal was pushing a 50-pound calf out of her vagina? In public? But I was as guilty as the rest, and couldn’t turn away.
When I returned home to New York City, I just couldn’t stop talking about it. They did this every year at the fair, with all variety of livestock (including pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens) giving birth to hundreds of babies over the 10-day span of the event. The organizers have been doing it for over a decade, with the goal of teaching visitors about animal agriculture production and veterinary science. It was the fair’s most popular exhibit. “Isn’t that crazy?” I asked Heidi. She said, “Yes. Let’s shoot it.”
And so we did. We hauled our crew to the fair and filmed live births for a few days. It was clear the piece didn’t need much dialogue. Here was an opportunity to really let expressions and nuance inform the piece. It turned out the spectacle of live birth wasn’t where the action was—the faces of the audience told the story.
This creative experiment in virtually wordless filmmaking, which we ended up calling Day One, freed us in so many ways. And we brought the lessons of this excursion to our next film, Detropia , where the city of Detroit, silent and wounded, speaks volumes to the audience. Go see it—it’s in theaters now.
The Daily Beast’s Doc Incubator series aims to kick-start feature-length documentaries by supporting remarkable works-in-progress.