Lots to think about today--which is, of course, what I come for.
First up, two films exploring the outer reaches of what it means to be a parent. The first, "The Space You Leave" (5.5) is a ten-minute film that sets out simply to enter into the experience of three parents whose adult children have been missing for several years. Ten minutes isn't really long enough to do much with that subject, though it may be as much of this type of pain that many people can endure. The filmmaker does an admirable job, at least, in creating a sense of space for grief in his depiction of his three subjects.
It was followed by "Google Baby" (8), an exploration of the global baby industry, which allows those with sufficient means (mostly white Westerners) to become parents by implanting the fertilized egg of their choosing into a surrogate mother in India. This first feature film of Israeli director Zippi Brand Frank wisely depicts this latest manifestation of "outsourcing" (a term applied by one of the film's subjects) without histrionics, simply observing the various players with little commentary. The filmmaker's watchful eye seems to know just where to linger to leave you quietly and increasingly unsettled.
The film spends a fair amount of attention on a surrogacy center in Gujarat, India, run by a female doctor who is impressive in her way. She moves efficiently between cell phone marketing, brisk Caesarian deliveries, and negotiating deals for her cadre of surrogate mothers, who live in her clinic for their entire pregnancy and are motivated by the chance to better the lives of their own families. Her surrogates are required to have had healthy pregnancies already and she will only serve prospective parents who either cannot conceive or have only one child. She warns the potential surrogates clearly and firmly (at least on camera) of the risk of hemorrhage and other complications, including death, and also that they will have no claim on the fetuses they carry for nine months. She seems protective of them, in her way--yet there is a briskness to her response to the occasional sign of tears in these mostly stoic women during delivery ("Why are you crying? Are you happy?" she inquires in the classic leading question) that is disturbing to watch.
She is approached by an Israeli entrepreneur who has fathered a child with his male partner through a more expensive U.S. surrogate and has the idea of harvesting eggs and sperm from white Western donors and implanting them into these Indian surrogates. He seems benign enough at first, and is clearly grateful for the opportunity to be a parent himself--yet there is a blitheness to his references to "his pregnancy" that seems to betray a lack of reverence for the real biology involved. That impression grows with scenes of his own deal-making, including a switch to a Mumbai surrogacy clinic that suggests implanting two surrogates to improve the chances of a successful pregnancy and, one suspects, is not so protective of the surrogates as the clinic in Gujarat. The ensuing discussions with his clients and his tepid ethic struggle afterwards made my blood run cold.
There are also scenes with a Tennessee woman who is chosen as the egg donor for another gay Israeli couple. Again, the chance to better her family's circumstances is the motivation--but one can't help but notice the contrasts with the Indian women, who are paid (for carrying a child to term and delivering it by Caesarian section) less than half of what she is paid to harvest her eggs by IVF; she wants to remodel her comfortable home and buy more firearms, while a representative Indian woman wants to buy a two-room house.
Through it all, Frank wisely realizes that she need only light on the ethical implications of all this. The signs of exploitation of the women seem less and less subtle as time goes on, though partly what makes this film disturbing is the very real sense that many people would miss those very signs. All the women in the film seem to be making a free choice--but how free is it? How awake are the men in the lives, and the various others who stand to benefit, of the real costs to these women? Is there any limit to the degree wealthy people, mostly Westerners, are willing to exploit people to get what they want, simply because they have the means to do so?
It's so late and I'm so bushed that I'll have to wait until tomorrow to write about two of the other films I saw today, since they deserve more careful praise than I can dash off. I will mention, though, that I was not a fan of "The Oath" (4). While director and cinematographer Laura Poitra deserved the award for cinematography that she won at Sundance, I found the film really frustrating. She chooses as her primary subject Abu Jandal, the brother-in-law of Salim Hamdan (Osama Bin Laden's former driver and the most famous Guantanamo prisoner). Jandal, Bin Laden's former bodyguard, recruited Hamdan to al-Quaida and says he now feels guilty about that--in between claiming to be everything from a hardened jihadist to a repentent one. But while Hamdan spent several years at Guantanamo and was the subject of a notorious appeal and trial, Jandal appears to have been much more involved with Bin Laden and hasn't suffered in the same way. What makes him a terrible subject, in my opinion, is that he is clearly such a manipulative liar and attention hog--and Poitra never finds a vantage point for illuminating why it is worth our while to spend 97 minutes basically serving as the audience he obviously craves. I actually don't feel like I gained much insight from watching this film at all. Maybe I'm just too familiar with this kind of psychology to find it inherently fascinating--but actually, I've seen films that displayed much more perspective about people like Jandal.