‘Future Baby’: Hot Docs Review

Future Baby Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of NGF Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion

Future Baby Still - Publicity - H 2016

Clear-eyed and provocative.

A documentarian explores the 21st-century science of making babies.

Are babies becoming a commodity? That’s one of the unsettling questions posed by Future Baby, Maria Arlamovsky’s frontline report on the state of reproductive medicine. The Vienna-based filmmaker traveled the world to speak with people directly involved in or affected by the new world of baby-making, among them physicians, researchers, patients and egg donors. From microscopic views of in vitro fertilization to the tangled delivery-room dynamics of a surrogate pregnancy, she’s compiled a wide-ranging and incisive look at the ways that a fundamental aspect of being human is changing.

Both proselytizers and skeptics figure in the well-reported, elegantly shot documentary, whose multiple perspectives contribute to an eye-opening study. Beyond the mechanics and economics of the various procedures, Arlamovsky is exceptionally attuned to each situation’s often unspoken emotions, whether it’s a 49-year-old woman’s anguished longing for a child or a twentysomething’s soul-deep sadness in knowing that the identity of her sperm-donor father will forever remain a mystery.

Following the fertility tourism trail, the director speaks with a German couple on their last-hope visit to a Spanish clinic — a heartbreaking portrait of anxiety, hope and denial — and tracks the cross-border progress between American parents-to-be and the Mexican surrogate who’s carrying their child, a product of the husband’s sperm and the egg of a “19-year-old Brazilian model,” as the wife describes her.

The shopping aspect of reproductive medicine comes through loud and clear: Couples take out loans for the procedures, à la home improvement financing; on urgent phone calls with clients, clinics offer sales spiels in the form of medical advice; and a few feet from where a low-income Mexican woman has just given birth to their son, an American couple smile for a doctor’s video camera and offer a promotional endorsement of the clinic’s services.

The class divide is implicit in the film’s various scenarios, but only Carl Djerassi (who died in 2015) addresses the matter directly in terms of access and insurance coverage. Speaking in his Vienna office, the developer of the contraceptive pill also suggests a radical way for young women to liberate themselves from their biological clocks.

But radical is in the eye of the beholder. Arlamovsky balances the mission statements of clinicians with the probing questions of bioethicist Carmel Shalev and sociologist Barbara Katz-Rothman. The former illuminates the way that having a child has morphed from “desire to need to entitlement.” Katz-Rothman sounds an alarm over the genetic engineering aspect of this emerging form of consumerism, and the normalization of decisions over which lives are worthy of creation.

With cosmetic considerations and gender selection becoming more accepted — and defended by the zygote-manipulating doctors — the sociologist’s comments have a potent clarity, especially when she zeroes in on the illusion of control that’s a byproduct of reproductive technologies. Katz-Rothman reminds us of the “wild chance” involved in bringing a child into the world. From a different perspective, so does a delighted, but understandably tired, New York couple whose gamble on surrogacy resulted in triplets. Arlamovsky’s strong film gives one of their adorable infants the last word.

Production: Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion
Director-screenwriter: Maria Arlamovsky
Producers: Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Michael Kitzberger, Wolfgang Widerhofer
Director of photography: Sebastian Arlamovsky
Editor: Natalie Schwager
Composers: Vincent Pongracz, Alana Newman
Sales: Autlook Filmsales

Not rated, 92 minutes