Director Barento Taha examines Black infant mortality in ‘Risk Factor’

The documentary will air online as part of Ohio Shorts on Saturday, April 17

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Barento Taha

Barento Taha first had the idea for “Risk Factor,” a short film that takes a long look into the Black infant mortality crisis, when he was studying computational neuroscience and pre-med at Ohio State University in 2016. At the time, Taha, who was born in Canada to parents who emigrated from Ethiopia and later moved with his family to the Northern Lights neighborhood of Columbus at age 3, felt disillusioned studying medicine, compelled by something inside to explore the world of documentary filmmaking. 

“It just felt like a good idea,” said Taha, who completed his undergraduate degree in neuroscience and is currently wrapping his master’s in epidemiology at OSU with plans to attend the University of Southern California later this year, where he’s been accepted into the MFA directing program at the School of Cinematic Arts. “The pre-med environment is very competitive, and it can be dangerous, at times, with what you put yourself through. But even in that moment I realized [film] was an idea worth pursuing, an organic idea of my own. It took up real estate [in my mind], whether I wanted it to or not.”

Taha said it took “a lot of repression” to carry on and finish his neuroscience degree while simultaneously immersing himself in the world of film, learning each aspect of the production by working in whatever capacity he could with local movie makers, including director Chris Bournea, whom Taha would regularly pepper with questions as he struggled to resolve a host of internal questions regarding his career path.

“My brother is a neurosurgeon, so I had … all of this unaddressed anxiety about doing film,” said Taha, whose documentary “Risk Factor” will air online beginning at 1 p.m. as part of the Ohio Shorts portion of the Columbus International Film + Animation Festival on Saturday, April 17. 

Taha traced his break with medicine to a summer internship at Case Western Reserve University, which was meant to advance that career path but ended up having the opposite effect. While working as an intern, Taha started to become more familiar with a number of doctors studying high infant mortality rates in Ohio, which led him to dig deeper into the data and ignited the desire to turn his discoveries into a documentary that could shed greater light on the subject.

Initially, Taha envisioned a film that covered infant mortality rates as a whole, eventually homing in on Black infant mortality rates after discovering data published by the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) that broke down infant mortality rates by race. “We didn’t talk about racial disparities and health outcomes as pre-med students,” he said. “It was very biology, chemistry, physics based. The concept of racial or socio-economic disparities [being related to] poor health outcomes, I’d just never seen anything like that. And [for Black women] it was like double the risk of having their child die.”

As Taha learned the various aspects of filmmaking, he started conducting interviews, talking to everyone from Black mothers who had suffered through the death of an infant to Jessica Roach, founder of the reproductive justice organization ROOTT (Restoring Our Own Through Transformation). These interviews started to further evolve the ideas presented in the film, capturing the human aspect of the crisis in a way Taha hadn’t considered possible when he began work on the short as a medical student.

More:Black Moms Matter: ROOTT confronts the racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality

“That human aspect was my biggest challenge because I was a neuroscience student and my initial idea for the documentary was closer to that skillset,” he said. “But as [I did the interviews], I knew the mothers had to be at the front of this thing. … I can have all of these experts talk to you about numbers, but you can also go find those on the ODH report. What you’re not going to get from the ODH report is this opportunity to sit with this woman in her home, on her couch, and to hear her talk.”

This includes Cheryl Martin, who recounts the death of her infant son in wrenching detail. These painful personal moments give horrifying life to the documentary’s larger thesis, which is centered on the fact that being Black is uncritically listed among the risk factors associated with preterm labor alongside things such as smoking cigarettes or using illicit drugs.

“It feels wrong to just have Black race on the list,” said Taha, who pulled the list presented in the film from the Mayo Clinic site. “You need to explore and expand on why, or else people will just take that idea and run with it. … You have to explore the nuances.”

As just one example, Taha pointed to a study that showed if a Black mother knew she was going to give birth to a boy, she naturally displayed higher stress levels, owing in part to the knowledge she would be raising a young Black boy in a country where he could be just one traffic stop from tragedy. The film also explores the still-present consequences of slavery, with one interview subject noting that just as advantages accumulate over time, so do disadvantages.

“And then you have to get past that baseline of acknowledging there’s a disparity, like, OK, now what are we going to do about it?” Taha said. “And that’s what I really wanted to chisel away at. I wanted to remove so much of the gray area that I almost have you in a corner and you can’t escape what I’ve shown you. And now you either willfully ignore it, or you live your life with this knowledge and try to do something as you go.”

Taha said much of the film took shape before he touched any of the footage on a computer when, over the course of two months, he wrote down all of the answers given by interview subjects on sticky notes and started the process of building and editing the film on the wall of his home, moving the colored squares of paper around until a narrative started to take shape.

Jessica Roach in a still from "Risk Factor"

In that process, the director uncovered an ending that he couldn't have anticipated going in, and which gives the film an unexpected jolt, with ROOTT’s Roach recounting her organization’s successes, as well as giving air to the larger idea of leaving a space for joy within a conversation that is largely framed in despairing terms.

“We get the opportunity to be able to say that we have joy,” Roach says, in part. “We’re not always a statistic and a number. ... To be able to see that level of empowerment when we have clients that have had previous traumatic birth experiences, and they seek us out because they want something different. … And then to watch that whole thing shift: how they view themselves; how they view their children; how they view their partner or husband; their relationship to the rest of the world. It’s just a complete shift. That’s the impact. … It’s not the story of the despair.”

Taha said he experienced a similar shift within himself during the making of “Risk Factor,” which has now set him on a career path he couldn’t have imagined as a freshman entering pre-med at OSU. 

“Whether it’s through a documentary or through a narrative [film], there are just some things I feel spiritually obligated to discuss, especially now that I have the capacity, or at least the tools to do it. I can't run from it,” said Taha, who expressed an interest in exploring everything from evictions to the case of Masonique Saunders in future projects. “I have this lens now looking back on my pre-med experience and what I was struggling with, and it was this idea that I hadn’t done anything to help anything, which is maybe a harsh way to look at my 19-year-old self. But with this I was able to do something, and to have an idea become something tangible.”