Published on May 26th, 2016 | by Meg Lemke0
VOTE FOR ME: An Interview with Amanda Micheli, Director of HAVEABABY—on IVF, Exploitation, and Raising Infertility Awareness
I met Amanda Micheli at what she described as “speed dating” at the Tribeca Film Festival—15-minute timeslots of journalists and blogger types rotating through a room in the posh Smyth Hotel, some blocks from where her documentary, HAVEABABY, had debuted. Usually I try to settle into interviews, but I admit there’s thrill in cutting to immediate intimacy. On the clock: She said she liked my dress; I told her I liked her movie; she told me about one of the worst times in her life. The conceit that you could learn something real about a person, to judge them, even, from such short introduction, is unpacked in HAVEABABY. Like her subjects, Micheli is struggling with infertility, and her personal story drove her to make the film. The documentary follows entrants in an internet video contest: “I Believe,” which puts up to popular vote (and some rather biased expert opinion) the hopes, dreams, despair, histories, and personalities of individuals and families across America, who are hoping to “win” a round of IVF. In vitro fertilization and other assisted reproduction technologies are very, very expensive—and most often, in many states, not covered by insurance, no matter how obviously medical the source of infertility. Some of the submissions try to be funny (superhero costumes get involved), but they are all, by design, sharing sorrow. Each is hoping to plead relatable and best parental, and just sad enough to sway the vote without losing their audience. “Vote for me” becomes a chorus.
“Haveababy offers a look inside an otherwise intensely private sphere, marked by economic difficulties, raw emotions, and—with luck—confetti-strewn celebrations,” says the write-up in Vogue. And yes, the circus of it is disturbing. Reviews of the film can’t seem to help comparisons to Hunger Games. Though really, I thought, have they seen Hunger Games? Because that’s a bloody stretch—whereas this online soul exposure feels common now, in the wide world of crowdfunding for personal need, via gofundme and the rest. (The film itself was funded on Kickstarter). Except here it’s also explicitly marketing for a for-profit clinic, and the baby-maker magnate head of the operation drives around Vegas extolling capitalism. But the clinic also argues that their marketing brings visibility and education around a topic that’s long been kept silenced. (Let me take a moment to share this handy etiquette guide for speaking to a friends who are taking on medical treatments in #TTC).
HAVEABABY‘s goal is to put faces, literally, to infertility. In sum, it’s more complicated than the hook looks, and I’m glad to say the film goes far deeper than headline-friendly glib comparisons. Micheli’s thoughtful lens follows on the lives and choices of these diverse men and women (straight and queer, single and partnered), before and well after the contest runs its course. From a Catholic couple who challenges their church by pursuing treatments—to a single, queer, Lady Gaga impersonator who has always known she wants to be a mother—these are not stereotypical stories. They’re worth more time.
MUTHA: Why did you decide to turn your lens to infertility?
AMANDA MICHELI: I came to the subject matter through my own personal experience, unfortunately. I got married later in life, at 39, and my husband and I decided to try to start trying to conceive. I thought, Oh, good, at least we’re trying before I’m 40. That’s how uneducated I was.
And it didn’t work. We did the usual, tried for six months, went to a doctor, and they told us that we had an extremely low sperm count. We were definitely in denial. We thought, OK, maybe we just need insemination or advice and some pills.
When the doctors told us that in their opinion, the only way we could get pregnant was with IVF, we were shocked. It took us a while to digest that information.
Then we used our life savings (literally) to do a round of IVF. I figured it would work because, again, I was uneducated about the realistic odds of the procedure. The fact is that in vitro is a course of treatment, not one-stop shopping. We were floored when we got the negative results from our first round, devastated on many levels.
This was a wake-up call to me about how unaware I was about my own fertility and the emotional and financial cost of treatment.
MUTHA: When did you get the idea to focus on the “I Believe” contest?
AMANDA MICHELI: Well, shortly after our first failed IVF, my husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer, so that put us into overdrive. We were in crisis mode. He had emergency surgery and had to give sperm samples before the radiation… and by then I was 40.
I was considering borrowing money from my parents, or moving back home to Massachusetts, where there’s insurance coverage. While I was researching these daunting financing options for another round of IVF, my producer and I were simultaneously researching a bunch of other film projects. Then, I found an article about the Sher Institute contests. I thought this would be an incredibly unique and provocative way to tell the story of infertility.
And I thought we would never get access. But all it took was one call and the Sher Institute said, Sure, come on down.
MUTHA: I wondered as I watched the film—were you undergoing IVF alongside the subjects?
AMANDA MICHELI: I did continue treatment throughout, though I never went to the same clinic as my subjects. We had very separate experiences. While emotionally I was on a rollercoaster, I made clear decisions to take breaks from treatment as needed. I wasn’t in tears on the way to film shoots.
MUTHA: Well, I was in tears watching it.
AMANDA MICHELI: Sorry.
MUTHA: No, that’s one reason I watch films.
AMANDA MICHELI: When I’m filming, I’m able to detach myself from a certain part of reality. That’s just part of the job. Here’s an analogy I could make—I’m incredibly needle-phobic, especially around IVs and line-ins. I can’t watch someone put a needle in my own arm. I would pass out. When I get blood drawn, I have to look the other way.
But if I’m looking through a lens, filming someone else being injected, it doesn’t bother me at all.
MUTHA: How did you do injections when you were going through IVF? Did your partner give them for you?
AMANDA MICHELI: He did the ones that were intramuscular, to get down to brass tacks. I got really good at doing the ones in my belly. You have no choice but to get over needle-phobia when you’re going through in vitro. And, of course, part of going through IVF is you tend to put on a few pounds, so your pincushion gets softer. (laughing)
I was recording video diaries of my own experience as I went through it, and we captured some funny moments—like on our way to Las Vegas, with my producer helping me do injections in the airplane bathroom.
MUTHA: Because you have to time them specifically, right?
AMANDA MICHELI: Usually you have to do them at a certain time in the morning, a certain time at night, depending on your protocol.
MUTHA: I had to take Lovenox when I was pregnant, so I also did timed injections, in the stomach fat. My father has blood clots and he was hospitalized for them, which was how they found out I had a clotting factor.
He and I would sometimes do them together, when I visited him, our matching rings of bruises on the belly. Lovenox shots really bruise.
AMANDA MICHELI: Family injections.
MUTHA: Let’s talk about exploitation. The film allows conversation about it through the character of the main nurse at the Sher institute in particular. She’s conflicted as a caregiver about the nature of the contest. What I thought it was interesting, too, was that as a documentary filmmaker you’re also using these people and their stories. Can you speak to that?
AMANDA MICHELI: I do think anyone asking someone to share their story, to put it out in the world, bears a certain responsibility for what the goal is of that exposure. And I can only speak for myself in saying that my goal in asking my subjects to share their stories was that I believed it was for the greater good. These were consensual relationships, we had an open collaboration, and that’s true of any documentary I’ve ever done. I’ve worked on films with highly sensitive subject matters and some that were lighter fare. I respected that HAVEABABY was taking on intimate personal issues. So, we had a tacit agreement with our subjects. I was upfront what we were doing and why. I also told them that I was going tell my story, too, which I will post on Facebook when the film is released. A focus of the infertility community’s movement currently is speaking out and sharing your story.
So, yes, it’s meta. We’re filming people sharing their story who are sharing a story on the internet.
MUTHA: Were you concerned you were exploiting the subjects in turn?
AMANDA MICHELI: I admit I did go in, initially, with a preconception that these people were under duress and feeling exploited by the contest. But, you know, I find as a documentary filmmaker that there’s a certain sort of ethnographic bias to assume that kind of power relationship. That actually takes agency away from the people participating, in the film and in the contest, and it’s a little offensive, honestly. The subjects of the film are saying, No, I’m choosing to do this—the situation that is compelling me to choose to do this is kind of fucked up, but I’m not clueless or dumb.
Everyone in the film is agreeing the contest is an absurd situation, but the contestants are willingly doing it. It’s not my favorite marketing technique, but I’ll tell you that the high-end fertility clinics that I’ve gone to have their own “higher end” marketing schemes. The approach Sher Institute takes is targeting middle America. I had a certain respect for the Institute for being transparent about the fact that this contest was part generosity and part marketing.
MUTHA: I honestly was in shock when I realized the contest was repeating annually, because you get early on these scenes in the film showing professionals at the Sher institute around a table, debating the merit to the contest—as well as the submissions. You filmed how they were questioning the nature of it as it went on. But then it started again the next year.
AMANDA MICHELI: I think they had a very volatile relationship to the contest internally, as we captured it.
What was great is the fact that they let us capture it.
MUTHA: Were they surprised when they saw the film?
AMANDA MICHELI: No, I think that it’s an ongoing debate for them.
As you mentioned, Linda, the head nurse, has been vocal about her concerns. The marketing director who first developed this contest, she herself went through IVF. She also truly believes that the contest will help raise awareness, that people seeing these video submissions will become more aware about infertility.
It makes viewers very uncomfortable and I understand that. What I want in this film is to take that discomfort and start a conversation from it: Why are people going to these extremes? Why is there such a demand for this procedure and why is it so hard for the average American to pursue it? I’m not going to debate the ethics of whether people should undertake the procedure of IVF. My belief is that this is a medical treatment for a medical diagnosis. There are many ways to build a family and this is one of them.
MUTHA: If there is an advocacy take-away in the film, it seems to be that IVF should be covered by insurance. What is being asked of the individuals within the contest is to convey their need, the emotional need, by creating narratives that they then submit for votes.
What came out for me in my critical response to the film, thinking about the documentation of this process, is this: it’s honestly hard to describe what the medical need is to have a child. The film brought up for me that infertility is essentially a mental health issue—in addition to an existential question, or essential question.
AMANDA MICHELI: Ding-ding-ding. [Makes an ‘on the nose’ motion] [by the way I felt very proud at this moment, it’s nice coming to some basic realization about a film in the presence of its director]
MUTHA: The film portrays the pain and stigmatization of infertility powerfully. You also chose diverse individuals to follow, racially, socio-economically, in terms of their gender and sexual orientation. This challenges the dominant idea of who is seeking ART / IVF.
What do you think is the stereotype of the typical “IVF” user, and how does this film help to change that problematic image?
AMANDA MICHELI: The stereotype of an IVF patient is a wealthy, career-driven woman who waited too long to have children, perhaps in New York or on the coast.
And the truth is that there are all kinds of people, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, from different racial and religious groups, and very different cultural backgrounds, who have medical diagnoses at different ages, and who would like to try to have a biological child. It’s a truly diverse group. It’s simply that what we see is that the people who tend to be able to afford it, also tend to be in a higher socioeconomic group.
MUTHA: Is that why you were drawn to the contest as a narrative device? Because it would attract people without ready funds for this procedure?
AMANDA MICHELI: The “have and have nots” aspect of the contest is obvious: you wouldn’t have to put yourself through this public outing if you had the money to pay for IVF—or if you had insurance.
And look, I think the insurance piece is complicated. I think our healthcare system has a lot of problems, and infertility is not the greatest problem in our healthcare system, but I think it merits conversation and awareness around it. And I don’t think that anybody of any age should have unlimited attempts of IVF. I think that there should be some guidelines, but that gets into slippery territory. I think at the very, very least, insurance should cover testing, so that any man or woman can know whether or not their reproductive function works. And then you can make an informed decision from there, if you want to seek medical treatment or adoption or be childless.
But that our healthcare system does not even validate basic testing and diagnosis, for all Americans, what does that say about our culture? We need to raise awareness and education.
MUTHA: May I ask you where you are personally?
AMANDA MICHELI: Sure. We’ve done three rounds of IVF. The last round I got pregnant for the first time and heard a heartbeat and then had a miscarriage at ten weeks.
MUTHA: I’m so sorry.
AMANDA MICHELI: That was really hard. That was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through. It was the hardest thing we’ve gone through in our marriage. It’s putting an incredible strain on our relationship and we really had to take a pause and try to strengthen the relationship and try to decide what’s next. So, right now I’m focusing on birthing the film into the world while we figure out the resolution to our own story. But creating this film has actually been very therapeutic for me.
Amanda Micheli is an Oscar-nominated director and a celebrated cinematographer. In 2014, she produced the award-winning film, SLOMO, which was shortlisted for an Oscar and won best short documentary at SXSW and the IDA Awards. In 2008, LA CORONA premiered at Sundance and won an Oscar nomination before airing on HBO.
Amanda’s award-winning feature DOUBLE DARE, which followed the struggles of two Hollywood stuntwomen, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival before its PBS broadcast and theatrical release in 2005. Amanda also co-directed ONE NATION UNDER DOG for HBO, which premiered at Tribeca and won an Academy of Television honor for “Television with a Conscience.” Her first film, JUST FOR THE RIDE, won a student Oscar and IDA Award before airing on POV. Amanda’s other documentary credits as a DP and producer include Morgan Spurlock’s 30 DAYS and various Sundance and HBO films including: THIN, CAT DANCERS, and MY FLESH AND BLOOD.
Amanda is a past visiting lecturer at Stanford’s MFA film program. She studied film at Harvard where she was an All-American in women’s rugby before representing the U.S. on the Women’s National Team.