It turns out that getting people to support a documentary film, about people who are struggling with infertility and pregnancy loss, isn’t easy. Infertility is still considered a taboo subject that’s often associated with feelings of shame. The topic also sparks controversy, partly because a section of our society still finds the methods of treating infertility, like IVF or Surrogacy, sacrilegious or even selfish when adoption is an option. We aren’t going to get into that debate here, but clearly many people fear being judged and choose to keep their experience with infertility, miscarriage and IVF private. That’s why we applaud the efforts of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amanda Micheli, who faced several challenges while pursuing her goal to open up the discussion on those topics, as well as educate, support and honor those with infertility.
Micheli’s documentary film Vegas Baby, now available on iTunes, follows the raw and emotional journey of several aspiring parents who suffer from infertility and the inability to afford expensive fertility treatments. They all enter a controversial contest to win a free round of IVF by a Las Vegas fertility doctor. To enter, the
couples submitted videos online explaining why they deserved a chance to have a baby. The top ten finalists were chosen from a popular vote on social media, then a panel of judges selected the winner. Micheli shows great sensitivity and respect for the diverse subjects of her film who include a devoutly Catholic Latino couple from Texas and a lesbian Lady Gaga Impersonator from New York. I found the documentary to be an accurate representation of the infertility experience – that brought me to tears more than once. Micheli graciously took some time to talk with us about the film and her own inspiring story:
You have been a successful documentary filmmaker since you graduated from Harvard in 1995. Tell us what first inspired you to choose this career path?
In high school I was the photo editor of my school newspaper. That was the first time that I felt I had a purpose. It was my passport into all different communities. I think a lot of kids feel like misfits in high school and for me this was the first time I felt like I fit in. I did my senior year of high school in Los Angeles and had the luxury of taking a film theory class taught by a professor from the American Film Institute. The class was about feminist film theory and it really opened my eyes. I realized then I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. For me there was a desire to tell women’s stories specifically. I ended up in a small undergraduate film program at Harvard – which is not where most people go to learn filmmaking. But there were some really great professors there and I was able to learn the craft as an undergraduate, which is really rare. Most of the big film schools don’t let undergraduates play with the film equipment, you have to be in grad school. But at Harvard, I was able to make an hour-long documentary as my undergraduate thesis – and it actually sold to PBS. So, at a young age I was already a filmmaker, but I didn’t have professional experience and had to learn on the job.
And learn on the job you did, quite successfully in fact. Now you are an Oscar-nominated filmmaker. The subject of your latest film, Vegas Baby, seems to have chosen you. Tell us about what led you to making a documentary about infertility.
How I came to infertility was a surprise to me. My husband and I got married later in life. We had a decision to make about whether or not we wanted to have children. We thought once we made that decision, that we wanted kids, it would just happen. And it didn’t. We got a diagnosis, male factor infertility and we didn’t know why. Then they told us the only way we could get pregnant was through IVF. So, every step of the way, it was a life changing moment, where you thought you would never have to make this decision. Then when we decided to use our savings to do one round of IVF, we really thought we had a good chance. Looking back now, I don’t think I really understood the odds. We got no genetically normal embryos. So, when the process failed, I was flabbergasted. The first lesson for me was, understanding in a very profound way, that in a sense I had made a choice, without realizing I was making a choice. That by waiting until 39 to start the process of trying to have children, I had made it incredibly hard for myself. And I hadn’t absorbed that until that moment. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I am a huge supporter of women who follow their career and I would never want any young woman to feel pressure. But on the other hand, I felt like I was missing a lot of information. I honestly felt ashamed about my own lack of understanding, my own ignorance of reproductive medicine, about IVF, about fertility. It was just a big wake-up call. I literally couldn’t believe how clueless I was. I thought, well, I’m a pretty smart lady, so there must a lot of other women out there who are also feeling in the dark. So, as a filmmaker, my first reaction was, how can I change this? How can I help other people? How can I raise awareness and education surrounding infertility and IVF.
As a patient, I was faced with the choice of do you do IVF again and go through it again and where do you find that money. Or do you not do it again and accept that you will never have a child? So then when we decided to do a second round of IVF, which we never thought we would do, we were researching financing options and that’s when I came across an article about Dr. Sher’s contest.
There are these assumptions ingrained in us about reproductive medicine and the people who seek it out.
Until recently, Dr. Geoffrey Sher’s Las Vegas based fertility clinic held the annual social media based contest for a free cycle of IVF. What did you first think when you discovered this contest?
My first reaction was, ‘This is crazy, I can’t believe people are doing this.’ But then sitting and thinking about it for a minute, I was like, “But, I totally get it.” Because, I could empathize with that want, that desire, that feeling of desperation, the lack of cash and the lack of insurance. I would not want to watch a film about IVF that was just full of medical experts lecturing at me. I won’t pay attention, because I like a good story. To me that is what the contest provided – a hook and a story, a container to help tell this story in a dramatic way.
I was incredibly impressed by the diversity of the people who entered the contest. Even I had a stereotype about people who do IVF. Like in my head, I imagined a Manhattan career woman, a San Francisco career woman or a celebrity. I think that I had ingrained that cultural stereotype. So to see this incredibly diverse pool of people was really eye opening. It was also validating the need to make this film, because there are these assumptions ingrained in us about reproductive medicine and the people who seek it out. And here was all of these people from all different walks of life, different religions, cultures, some working class, some middle class, all wanting the same thing.
Infertility challenges our sense of identity and womanhood, and the struggle reflects our need to feel whole.
IVF is really expensive in the US and for most people it’s not covered by insurance. People often go into debt trying to pay for the procedure. So, it’s easy to understand why so many people would subject themselves to a public contest like this one. On the other hand, it’s also easy to see why this particular contest was so controversial. While the clinic offered the winner one round of IVF, they also used the publicity as a marketing tool to build their business. Critics claim they were capitalizing on people who were in a very dark and desperate place.
The problem is not the contest – I think the contest is a symptom of bigger problem. The fact that people are not only willing to participate, but are excited to do it is the issue. I mean, this is happening in our culture and it’s not going away. I just saw a raffle and a contest announced in April, giving away free cycles of IVF. This is a cultural phenomenon. I am not creating it, I am documenting it.
Infertility challenges our sense of identity and womanhood, and the struggle reflects our need to feel whole. It’s hard to let that go. My hope is that as the field develops, there will be more psychological help and support for patients. Infertility is a medical issue, but it’s also a psychological one.
How do you think your own struggle with infertility affected how you produced and directed this film?
The patients, I definitely feel they felt more comfortable with me because I understood what they were going through on a deeper level. Nobody said on the first phone call, ‘Yes, come on over!’ But, once people trust you as a filmmaker, there is a real desire to have this experience witnessed. Because people don’t talk about it, people don’t listen, people don’t get it. To have someone to say, ‘I get it. This really sucks what you are going through and I want to come document it.’ I think nine out of ten people really want that experience, because it’s very validating and in some ways hopefully therapeutic. It’s like hopefully someone else doesn’t have to go through this if they can learn from what we are going through.
Did you have any trouble getting Dr. Sher’s clinic on board to participate? Did they have any restrictions that came along with the access?
No, I had full creative control over the film. I never made any promises to them, about the film being positive or negative. They had no influence over the outcome of the film. Had we found lots of negative viewpoints we would have put them in. I think the fact that I went through my own infertility experience, made the clinic trust me more. But they were already very much an open book. I think they were curious to see what I would I come up with. They had already faced criticism and I don’t think they were afraid to face more. They appreciated the conversation. They really believed what they were doing was for good.
You didn’t know if any of the couples you followed in the film would end up with a happy ending – and what that might have meant for the film’s overall message?
We didn’t know who was going to win or who was going to get pregnant. So it made it really difficult to plan and to know when you stop filming. We just needed to be patient. There was always a chance it was going to skew one way or another. For example, if everyone had gotten pregnant, or nobody got pregnant, it would have been troubling to me, because that is not statistically accurate. But we waited long enough until we had enough closure. People had their ups and downs, but we were telling stories that were representative and true to the infertility experience. But that was important to me to make sure that we didn’t misrepresent success rates.
What was the most challenging part of making this film?
When it comes to finding financing or getting distribution for independent documentaries often times it becomes a competition for the world’s most important topics. It’s not so much about the art of the film, the way the film looks or if it’s a well-told story. It’s about what is the social issue at stake at that moment. While there is a lot of good that comes out of that, I think a lot of really important issues can get lost in the shuffle. I think at the end of the day, a lot of the people I was going to for financing and film distribution did not see infertility as an important topic. And they had a lot of the same kind of judgments and assumptions about it that we are trying to combat by making the film. We would get questions like – “What is wrong with these people, why don’t they just adopt?” So we had to work hard to educate people and open their eyes about this subject. Because in the research and development phase, you really need people to take a risk and join you on the journey. It was hard to find those kind of partners. Morgan Spurlock (documentary filmmaker best known for the 2004 film Super Size Me) came on as an executive producer to help us find distribution and get the word out. He had a baby through IVF, so he really understood what we were trying to do. And there were other people who were personally touched by infertility, who stepped up to support the film as well.
Tell us what you most want people to know about this film – why you decided to spend years making it and why they should take the time to watch it?
It’s about wanting to break the silence. It felt like there were not enough educated conversations about infertility going on out there. You go online and a lot of the support groups are talking about “baby dust” and women are comparing numbers. I wanted to open up a conversation that was a little more complicated. I wanted to get at that deep desire within people, in order to increase empathy for the intense loss people feel when they go through this. I am basically trying to help people get it, who don’t get it.
Vegas Baby is premiering June 27 on the PBS “America Reframed” series. After that, the film will be available anytime on Netflix, iTunes & Amazon.