The economic and emotional costs of in vitro fertilization are powerfully evident from the first moments of haveababy, Amanda Micheli’s intimate look at a complex subject. Prone on a gurney, a woman about to undergo the procedure, not for the first time, says she’s spent $200,000 so far on medical interventions to help her get pregnant. The anxiety on her face says plenty more.
Though it could have used more questioning voices, Micheli’s film is a compassionate exploration of a medical matter that’s long been cloaked in shame. Bolstered by an awareness campaign in partnership with a patient advocacy group and the director’s blog about her own struggles with infertility, the doc will likely generate the attention of media outlets as well as small-screen programmers and nonfiction-friendly distributors.
Having gained remarkable access to fertility patients over a two-year period, Micheli follows them through roller-coaster waves of despair and hope. Her way into the story is a Web-based video contest for a free round of IVF, which can cost as much as $20,000. Beginning with a healthy dose of skepticism toward the procreation-focused sweepstakes, the filmmaker quickly gets past the gimmick to zero in on three sets of contestants. In going public for the contest and for Micheli’s camera, the patients’ openness is noteworthy. Lady Gaga impersonator Athena Reich, one of the film’s key figures, says that revealing her fertility problems was more difficult than coming out as gay.
The film takes its title from the website name of Sher Fertility Clinics, the chain of private facilities that conducts the annual “I Believe” contest. Micheli, who serves as d.p., is in the room with IVF trailblazer Dr. Geoffrey Sher and the executives of his Las Vegas clinic as they weigh the marketing value of social media against contestants’ privacy. She’s in the room when the judges (fertility advocates and patients) sort through the finalists’ videos, which range from awkwardly playful stabs at creativity to nakedly plaintive begging.
The judges’ goodwill and sincerity couldn’t be clearer, but neither could the reminders of Queen for a Day in a setup that looks for the best worst story. Counting up the failed IVFs, frozen embryo transfers and adoptions, their job is to compare strangers’ experiences of devastating loss.
The myriad ways people respond to loss is, finally, the subject of the documentary. Micheli wisely devotes only a small portion of its running time to suspense over the contest results. Her film takes shape as a sampling of deeply personal choices within the context of a growing, profit-driven industry whose services are rarely covered by insurance — in a nutshell, American healthcare, but with the charged twist of ingrained and not necessarily rational expectations about parenthood.
Sher offers discounts to all finalists, and Micheli follows two of them plus the winner, capturing intensely emotional moments as her film touches on a number of broader questions. Though some of these are addressed directly, most of the doc’s commentary is implicit in the often heartbreaking interactions and confessions of her subjects.
But only one contest naysayer gets any screen time. And only one person mentions the health risks of the treatments, with their high-dosage hormone injections. As to questions about the sense of urgency that leads people to go into debt in order to gamble on IVF — for which the average success rate is 30% — Micheli builds a case for nonjudgment, framing fertility treatments as another facet of reproductive choice. The film makes clear that people’s reasons for seeking treatment are myriad, as are reasons for having children in general.
Aiming a critical eye at the celebrity-obsessed media, which both exalts and trivializes pregnancy with its “baby-bump” watches and celebratory headlines about IVF and surrogacy, Micheli emphasizes that these reproductive options are usually unattainable for those who aren’t wealthy. Like other “I Believe” hopefuls, the trio of IVF patients at the center of haveababy — two couples and a single woman — are working-class or middle-class, and their determination to give birth has left them financially strapped.
Beyond that, Micheli’s observant lens catches the potentially destructive fallout of a single-minded pursuit. The silences between couples are often weighted with a tense ambivalence, and one man has to face his wife’s obstinate refusal to consider adoption, or even surrogacy, because of the value she places on blood ties. Her attitude is especially troubling given that her husband is adopted.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Production company: Runaway Films
Director-director of photography: Amanda Micheli
Producers: Amanda Micheli, Serin Marshall
Editors: Greg O’Toole, Lisa Fruchtman
Composer: Paul Brill
Not rated, 77 minutes