Review: Joyce at 34

Joyce at 34 (1972)
Directed by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill

A friend recommended this documentary to me after I wrote about Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends in my monthly newsletter. Joyce at 34 is a short film, a little over a half-hour, about director Joyce Chopra’s transition to new motherhood as she tries to balance her professional and home life. She began filming when she was eight months pregnant at the suggestion of a friend, who said she was in a unique position to make a documentary about her life. Chopra at first thought the movie would be about her mother, and how her relationship with her mother might change after having a baby, but the documentary turned into an inter-generational story about how difficult it is for women to balance work and childcare. Chopra is about the same age as my parents, and her struggle to continue working after having a baby is all too familiar to women in my late Gen X/early millennial cohort. Even as Chopra is shown to have a supportive partner with a flexible work schedule, the burden of childcare falls on her and her mother. I left this movie feeling as if nothing has really changed for women, and nothing will until there is some kind of universal childcare in place, although this isn’t something that anyone in the documentary suggests. It’s not prescriptive or overtly political in its tone. Instead, its power comes in its straightforward depiction of a woman who continues to work after having a baby.

Shot with a handheld camera by Chopra’s friend and colleague, Claudia Weill, the film shows the live birth of Chopra’s daughter as well as Chopra’s early weeks postpartum. There are interviews with Chopra’s husband, mother, colleagues, and friends. In a fascinating scene (pictured above) Chopra asks her mother’s friends, who meet every few months for lunch, to talk about what it was like for them to raise children while working. The discussion that follows is electric, with the women interrupting each other to get a word in edgewise. In an interview for Indiewire, Chopra said that their excitement was completely unexpected, and that she realized that no one had ever really asked them about how they felt about being working mothers. Although they seemed to enjoy their jobs as schoolteachers, they experienced a lot of pushback from spouses, community members, and their own children, who questioned why they didn’t just stay home. In a parallel scene, Chopra talks to women her own age about their feelings about having children. These younger women are decidedly more accustomed to talking about feminism and seeing their choices within a larger political framework, but they don’t seem any more free.

Other scenes show Chopra caring for her daughter as she grows from an infant to a baby to a toddler taking her first steps. We also see Chopra dropping the baby off at her mother’s, so that she can go to work. And we see Chopra at work, managing a crew and setting up for a film. It’s a relief, Chopra says, to be in the world without her daughter from time to time; she enjoys her job and doesn’t feel she’s missing out on anything at home. She’s grateful to her mother and her husband for their help but it’s clear that the burden of caregiving still falls on her. At the end of the documentary she looks straight at the camera and says that even if, in theory, she’d like to have another child, it would not be possible for her to do so and to continue working in film. Family size is something that all working women grapple with, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it discussed so frankly on film. I left the documentary wishing there were more like it, with women from a variety of social classes and career fields. It feels like a topic that is even more relevant today, as so many families have reported having less children than they’d like to, because the cost of housing and childcare and the growing necessity to bring in two incomes. It seems unfair that after all these years, women are still forced to choose between work and family in a way that men never are. It’s still hard to imagine a male director looking into the camera and saying that he can’t have another child because it would be bad for his career.

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