The stakes are high when it comes to the inability to have children and Amanda Micheli, Academy Awarding documentarian, explores the personal and financial toll it takes on a couple as they vie to win a chance at a round of IVF (In Vitro Fertilization). It’s an emotionally raw journey as couples bare their souls and share personal stories of the need to complete their family…no matter the cost.
Micheli spoke with me about her background and personal association with the project. Her unique insight allows the film to unfold in an unbiased and informative way while still unveiling the emotional layers just under the surface.
Reel Honest Reviews (RHR): Tell me how you first became interested in filmmaking.
Amanda Micheli (AM): I started out in still photography. In high school, I was the photo editor of my high school newspaper. That’s where I cut my teeth and learned to navigate the somewhat terrifying world of high school . But it was great because I was able to be the photojournalist and cut though a lot of cross sections of that culture. I just really felt comfortable with a camera. It gave me license and a purpose.
RHR: You went to Harvard for film studies—I don’t usually associate Harvard with filmmakers.
AM: I’ve always loved movies and have had that desire to lean that direction, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I never would have expected to go to Harvard for film, for undergrad. It’s not a department that gets a lot of notoriety. Most of the professors focus on documentary work. It’s a hidden jewel, a well-supported program that’s not really known and you’re able to make a movie as your undergraduate thesis. So I dove in and made an hour long documentary as my undergrad thesis called “Just for the Ride.”
RHR: Your film went on to win a Student Oscar, travel film festivals, and have distribution on PBS!
AM: I don’t think I realized at the time how amazing that was! I thought that was what happened when you made a film. My sophomore effort was a lot harder when I woke up to the reality of what it costs to make a movie in the real world and how hard it is to get distribution.
RHR: What drew you to the topic for your film “Vegas Baby?”
AM: Unfortunately, I came to the subject matter through my own personal experience. My husband and I have been struggling with our own infertility story for about 5 years now. When we first started [trying], I waited until later in life…we were both older when we got married and I would say woefully ignorant about our fertility. Then, unfortuantely, once we got a diagnosis that my husband had a low sperm count and nobody knew why, everybody said we don’t have time to figure out why you just have to get moving because Amanda’s getting up there. Then we found out that after our first failed IVF that my husband had testicular cancer so that kind of compounded everything for obvious reasons and derailed us because we were focused on health and his mortality…and that just intenisfied the experience to the “n”th degree.
We spent our savings on a round of IVF. We were told that that was the only way we could have a biological child. We wanted to give it a shot. We never thought we would be in that position. I think we had a lot of stereotypes and judgments around IVF ourselves. We’re not THOSE kind of people. I think when we stared trying, we were like if it works it works, and if it doesnt it doesn’t… all of sudden you have to get real and [think] what would I be willing to do to make this happen. When it didn’t work and we were faced with the expense— over $20,000, getting our hopes up, and feeling invested and doing something outside our comfort zone, and just realizing that I was really uneducated about the odds of success [and] the costs— the emotional physical and financial cost of reproductive medicine. As a filmmaker, I felt compelled to do something with that experience. It was actually when I was researching funding options for our second round of IVF … I came across an article in the New York Times about these clinics that were having raffles and contests for people who couldn’t afford treatment. My first reaction was, this is insanity. But when I sat and thought about it and what I had been through, I felt for these people and I felt like there was something to it. If there was this many people who were willing to bare their souls on the internet for the hope, for the shred of a hope, to have a child, it felt like it was speaking something, it was like a zeitgeist.
RHR: Your film addresses many issues about IVF. What do you hope this film will accomplish?
AM: I think for me there’s hope in starting the conversation around it and raising awareness about it and also education. Hopefully the millenial generation is already more educated than I was. I think I was specifically a post-feminist generation where my mom didn’t want me to feel pressured about having a family. She wanted me to feel independent and free to pursue my dreams. Even for people with medical diagnoses that aren’t age related, we have a lot to learn about this. Also just to raise awareness about the odds and the cost of what people are getting into…you have to go in with your eyes wide open and be your own advocate. And also… get really good mental health support. That’s one of the things I really rallied about with the film is this is a medical problem, but it’s also a social problem and it’s also really a psychological problem. It’s something that needs counseling to make an informed decision around and I don’t think that IVF doctors are necessarily the best person to advise you…
RHR: Your film touches on many different adjacent topics using a unique style.
AM: There are so many layers to it and I hope that my film brings up questions that the audience can continue to think about and discuss…This isn’t pure “cinema verite,” but it certainly has an element to it…you’re observing as it’s unfolding. You don’t have the filmmaker speaking, [but] you run the risk that people think you’re not being critical enough…It’s just a different approach where you’re asking the audience to think critically based on what you’re putting in front of them.
RHR: The style also allows you to remain impartial, balanced. Was that difficult to do given how personal of a topic this is to you?
AM: It wasn’t hard to have a balanced point of view. To me, that was critical to reaching our audience in the most authentic way. People need to be educated, but it’s not for me to say how someone should choose this path or that path to build a family….[This] film uses the provocative premise of the contest as a way to make people look at the deeper issues beyond the topic. What are the human desires and emotions that lead people to go to the lengths and move beyond the black and white, the good guy and the bad guy, who do we blame. I don’t think the world is that simple.
RHR: Speaking of simple, it must not have been easy to gain access to the Dr. Sher’s infertility clinic to film. Was it?
AM: I made the pone call and I thought for sure they would say no, especially because the New York Times article was very critical. They just said, ‘Sure. Come on down.’ I was flabbergasted. I would never usually do this, but I said, ‘You’re not concerned about getting negative press? I want to be clear that you know that I’m going to have full control over this film.’ And they said they had nothing to hide. I thought they were very courageous. I really credit them…And I think I really lucked out that they were willing to take that risk to let me in. I can tell you we tried to film in a lot of other clinics…and we didn’t have that success at any other location.
RHR: With your personal connection, did you have difficulty in becoming attached to the subjects of the film?
AM: It’s always an issue when you’re making a film…and I think in this case, even though we had similar experiences, we had pretty different backgrounds. I don’t think that means being detached or aloof, but for me, the primary thing was making the film and trying, of course, to see their experience as empathetically as I could, but also with the eye of an observer…
RHR: What surprised you most about making this film?
AM: It’s the toll this can take on a marriage…it’s already hard enough to have a relationship and when you’re having something that’s affecting your most intimate [part] with your partner, your self esteem, your confidence, your sexuality, it’s incredibly layered and complicated what that can do to a relationship.
RHR: What have you learned from making this film that you hope others will as well?
AM: I just don’t want anyone to take their fertility for granted nor do I want people to quickly pass judgment on people…I hope the film will open people’s eyes to seeing [infertility] in a slightly different way.
“Vegas Baby” is now available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, and Vudu. On June 27th, see it on PBS World Channel and on Netflix, July 4.