Doctors diagnose mothers -- it's always mothers -- with Munchausen syndrome by proxy when they repeatedly show up in clinics and emergency rooms with young children who exhibit medically inexplicable maladies. It's not long before social workers and lawyers enter the picture. De la Pena includes video footage of mothers smothering their babies with their hands or pillows; other times, clear-cut poisons or overdoses of everyday substances like salt are involved.
The film profiles three accused mothers, their families and supporters. The youngest mother is Misty, a poor Alabama woman who authorities believe injected her daughter with insulin. The next, Julie, had a son born profoundly disabled and ended up battling in court long after his death. Jane's children were removed following accusations by a doctor who is conveniently (and, apparently, unethically) researching the issue.
Though all three stories are legally resolved in some manner, troubling questions remain. One of the key signs is a mother who can rattle off sophisticated medical terminology with alarming accuracy -- something Julie exhibits big-time. You have to wonder if she was this medically astute before her son was born with a tragic number of problems. She comes off as smart and cagey.
The film's titular acronym stands for Mothers Against Munchausen Accusations, a group that figures significantly in the film, though the filmmakers appear to remain neutral while exploring a fiery controversy. "These people gave us such access, [but] you have the obligation to present the story objectively," says Sommer, who also produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement and will attend the June 12 screening and a prefilm discussion.
"There was no need to overuse images that were disturbing, to indulge just to be eye-catching," she says of the filmmakers' decision to use only fleeting images of mothers caught on hidden camera inflicting violence on their kids. "There's so much inherent drama -- why waste your time being gratuitous?"
In a way, the movie has circled back to its creators. De la Pena became pregnant during the film's shoot, and the research began to resonate for her personally. Sommer is pregnant now and, after the film immersed her in the world of expectant mothers and steadfast doctors, is hypersensitive to the medical expectations put on pregnant women. She says her own natural worries, compounded by doctors' caveats and the number of suggested clinic visits, make her ask, "Who is overmedicalizing: me or the doctors?"
De la Pena is now working on a documentary about civil-liberties violations post-September 11, and Sommer has several potential projects. "I've still got a lot of righteous, curious anger," she says, as if that's the one quality required of a good documentarian. "There's so much out there to piss me off."