Isabelle Dussauge

The Fetus: Animated, historical short film

"The Fetus" is an animated short film about historical and contemporary understandings of the fetus, abortion and the origin of life. It addresses a broad audience, and especially youth and young adults. The main purpose of "The Fetus" is to show that how we understand fetuses has varied in time and as a result of what political role different social groups (doctors; anti-abortion movements; sex educators; etc.) have wanted fetuses to perform. An additional message is that both bodily experiences and claims about the body are mediated by cultural and social norms. With animated collages of historical film- and photo materials we question the visual culture surrounding the fetus and create associations which are not possible to communicate with text. "The Fetus" is a cooperation between the Department of history of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University, and the award-winning film collective "Don t Stop The Motion".
Final report

The short film project “The Unborn” has been renamed to “The Icon”. “The Icon” is an animated short film which sets with our contemporary understandings of unborn, life and abortion in a historical perspective. The movie is aimed to a broad general audience, and in particular youth and your adults. The planned duration of the film was a 3-4 minute. The resulting film is 15 minutes long, which turned out to be a necessary duration to unfold complex enough a story, visually and textually.

In accordance with the plan, the film is structured around three main collages, which constitute the film’s three main acts.

The first collage is built of older (early modern and modern) sources — maps, illustrations and books — which the camera pans over as historical time goes. This first act deals with early modern times, a world where notions and practices of the unborn were shaped by high infant mortality, beliefs in the malleability of unborn matter and divine influences, and different boundaries of humanness and non-humanness. The movie brings up which abortion practices were forbidden and which were accepted. The collage is partially animated and plays with its fantastic visual sources. For instance, we have staged historical reports of extraordinary births and included them as an animated scene in the classical book “Les Oeuvres” by Ambroise Paré.

For this first collage we have received invaluable help from the Hagströmer Library whose director granted us access and introduced us to the rich relevant visual materials of their collections.

The first act ends with the disenchantment of the world, and the collage becomes a book that opens up. The story goes on in a second collage which deals with modern times (the 18th and 19th century). There the film focuses on the establishment of modern science’s understanding of the fetus and fetal development as a standardised process. This second act also brings up the role of the clinic in providing fetal bodies to medical research; and abortion practices before their legalisation. Visually speaking, the film takes place in built miniature environments that recreate the clinic, the laboratory and play with modern embryology’s visual culture.

The third act deals with the 20th century and the collage is an installation of tv-sets in which film sequences are displayed. The film addresses several themes from historical and sociological research about the last hundred years in Sweden / Scandinavia: struggles about abortion rights; medicine’s double role as scientific producer and moral actor; the fetus as an icon for life; population control and the old dilemmas of new reproductive technologies.

Throughout, the film addresses the relationship between science, politics and mundane understandings of the unborn. Its ambition is to communicate that these levels have always influenced each other, and always do.

The film is primarily a historical documentary but its esthetics rather belong to the independent art film world. Its documentary character speaks to its ambition to communicate historical research, its factualness and informative speaker voice, and the way the story is chronologically organized. At the same time, the aesthetics of the film presents it as an art piece, which makes it both unique and highly suited for museum use and all adult audiences interested in film and arts.

The collages and miniature environments built for the film moreover invite the viewer to make contemporary and historical associations. We have also primarily used historical visual sources , and sometimes played with them in ways that aim to give the viewers a sense of wonder and critical distance to the visual culture of the unborn.

The future reception of the film is yet to analyze. However, we can already observe that the the movie lives up to its purpose — to “show that how we understand fetuses has varied in time and as a result of what political role different social groups… have wanted fetuses to perform. An additional message is that both bodily experiences and claims about the body are mediated by cultural and social norms.”

The production work has gone on for a longer time than planned but has followed the planned process.The cooperation between the film collective Don’t Stop The Motion (DSTM) and the Department of History of Science and Ideas at Uppsala University took place with a joint workshop, followed by contact with individual researchers. The project has also hugely benefited of meetings with the project’s reference group (consisting of experts from research and civil society). These meetings have been invaluable to assess priorities with regards to contents, perspectives, and the main lines of the film.

The project (with previews of the film) has already been presented at two academic conferences:
Curating Health: Graphic Medicine and Visual Representations of Illness, Stockholm University 3–4 December 2018
The Coming of Age of the Public Fetus, Uppsala University, 15–17 May 2019

As a direct result of this, we have been invited to participate in an course about body and art in a US university, with a viewing of the movie and a seminar about the creative process. The film team is also giving a seminar in visual storytelling at the Department of history of science and ideas at Uppsala university.

The film is in postproduction (editing) when this report is written. It is already sent to a film festival, and the Norwegian release event is agreed with the Norwegian Museum of Medicine. Release events will also be organised in the fall 2019 in Stockholm and Uppsala. The remaining distribution plan of the film consists of festival viewings in 2020 and then free availability on vimeo.

Grant administrator
Uppsala University
Reference number
SEK 450,000.00
Communication Projects