'Baby God': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

Baby God
Courtesy of DOC NYC
A botched telling of a dark, disturbing story.

An HBO documentary presents the tangled story of a predatory doctor who used his own sperm in fertility treatments.

The kind of story at the heart of Baby God is sadly familiar from news reports. As text at the end of the documentary points out, "More than two dozen U.S. doctors have been accused of secretly inseminating patients with their own sperm." Director Hannah Olson's first feature follows the children of Dr. Quincy Fortier, an OB/GYN who used his sperm to impregnate dozens of women in Nevada from the 1940s through the '80s.  Fortier, who died in 2006 at the age of 93, was sued late in life by one of the children of those unsuspecting women, but settled the case and never lost his medical license.

Olson makes one astute decision in creating her narrative. She follows Wendi Babst, born in 1966, a retired police detective who accidentally discovered half-siblings through the Ancestry.com DNA test and website. It was her first clue to the truth about her biological father. But as the film goes along on Babst's search and introduces other Fortier children, that promising approach is undermined by a series of wrong-headed narrative and visual choices that make Baby God scattershot and sometimes mystifying in its objectives, pedestrian at best.

There are a few wrenching sequences. Babst's mother, Cathy Holm, calmly tells her story. She had been Fortier's patient when she was a young bride having fertility problems, and the doctor told her to bring him a sample of her husband's sperm for insemination. She had no reason to think that Fortier had substituted his own. Holm's tone is wistful and resigned. Like his other victims, she is helpless to change the past. Throughout the film, Babst raises thoughtful questions about her own identity and how the news changes it. She wonders if she was right to tell her mother. She wants to change her nose so it looks less like Fortier's. And after a lifetime of service on the police force, she wonders if she has inherited any of Fortier's evil in her DNA.

Two of her half-siblings stand out. Brad Gulko, a genome scientist also born in 1966, looks startlingly like the photographs of Fortier. And Mike Otis, born in 1949, says he spent a year considering whether to reveal the truth about his conception to his 93-year-old mother. Olson's cameras meet mother and son the day after he has told her. Like Holm, she is disturbed but resigned. She wasn't even trying to get pregnant when she went to see Fortier, and had saved money to go back to school. "My life may have been altogether different," she says.

These heartbreaking reactions make the horror of Fortier's actions clear, while people close to him reveal his delusions. A recording of Fortier's own voice insists it was common in those days for doctors to use their sperm. His son, Quincy Fortier Jr., says his father explained away his actions by saying, "I'm just helping out." Fortier Jr. and his four siblings moved away with their mother after their parents divorced, and Fortier adopted two little girls as a single father. At least one of the adopted daughters seems to have bought into his justifications. "In his mind he meant no harm," she says. The other says flat-out, "I don't want to know."

There is so much material here that Olson could have shaped better. One odd choice is the use of vintage animation and stock footage throughout: cartoonish images of sperm fertilizing eggs, scenes of neon Las Vegas in the 1960s. They are distractions that add nothing except running time. Even at an hour and 18 minutes, Baby God feels padded.

And three-quarters of the way in, Olson makes the worst of the documentary's bad narrative moves. Quincy Jr. says that his father had sexually abused all his children, sons and daughters, from an early age. When his mother found out, that's when she divorced him and took the children away. "My father was crazy. And also a pervert," he says. This revelation does not land as the shocking dramatic turn Olson might have wanted. Instead, it makes you think, "Wait, what?" Even if the documentary means to follow Babst's investigation, dropping this news in so late is a huge problem. It raises questions the documentary doesn't begin to explore, and makes the abuse of his children seem secondary rather than part of the same destructive personality behind all these profoundly damaging violations. In the end, Baby God does little more than check one more name on a list of predators.

After its run at DOC NYC, the film will premiere on HBO on Dec. 2.

Venue: DOC NYC
Production Company: Loki Films
Distributor: HBO
Director and Producer: Hannah Olson
Executive Producers; Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Cinematography: Justin Zweifach
Editor: Toby Shimin
Music: Will Epstein
78 minutes