HotDocs review: Made in India [2010, Rebecca Haimowitz / Vaishali Sinha]

Toronto – “We’ve been trying for 7 years. I’m 40 years old. And all I’ve ever wanted is to have a child of our own.” To paraphrase Lisa Switzer, the protagonist of Made in India, is to sink into that same futility that she feels. I suppose I’ll never know how much that urge to express one’s maternal instinct can drive one to attempt far-flung solution, but then again it’s really no different from any other human endeavours – when all else seems to fail, we WILL try what option is left to us.

As we are told in a short introduction just before the film, Made in India wast the fruit of labour spanning 3 years, between Rebecca Haimowitz, who is expecting, Vaishali Sinha, and their team. Through the Switzers, they present a first-hand account of Westerners’ foray into the booming reproductive/procreative tourism scene. I’ve honestly never heard of such word combination, but it is a fitting description. More and more, desperate perspective parents turn to help in countries such as Lithuania, Ukraine, Thailand, and India, where “wombs are available for hire” at a modest cost relative to their home country. I use the quotes completely without derogatory intentions – that is surrogacy. The fact that we can use plain, non-euphemistic language does not mean that one should wade boldly into these ethically murky waters. In this case, the Switzers acquired the help of Planet Hospital, who arranged the doctors and fertility clinicians in Mumbai that will extract, inseminate, and implant their children into a local surrogate mother. Proceeding from that irretrievable junction, we follow the pair and the surrogate through pregnancy scares, legal contests, social stigma, and much unspoken undercurrents, to the return of two baby girls to San Antonio, TX.

I liked the directness of the narrative. The flimmakers interviewed all of the usual suspects, and pointed out several inadequacies that require delicate handling. For a film that deals with difficulties in making babies, it is surprisingly evenhanded. Lisa and Brian was not particularly emotional, surrogate mother Aasia did not burst into fury when she found out that she wasn’t going to get paid sufficiently. I think members of the audience was more emotional than all involved – maybe the camera was a calming factor. The issue of regulating this “trade” and the women rights involved was brought forward by several spokeswomen, while the Indian government insisted on providing guidelines not laws. I think many countries are waiting for legal precedence, but no one wants to go first. The ramshackle hence dishonest nature of the current system is in plain view. Aasia was held in the hospital for nearly two weeks and managers asked for her fees to be paid by the genetic parents, all the while restricting or denying anyone’s access to the babies. That was effectively ransom. Only the involvement of the US consulate facilitated the release of these children – imagine if the Switzers were citizens of a country of little international presence. The filmmakers may have won the lottery the day they teamed up with the Switzers, but I doubt that these troubles are rare occurrences like the agencies/clinics suggest. Arguments about how much the surrogates should be paid will no doubt surface in other reviews/commentaries and I won’t do a detail accounting of how much percentage the agencies/clinics took (> 50%), but the film was not as thought provoking as it could be. There’s no attempt to discover the US legal system’s response to this new trend. There is only a muted expose of the schemes ran by the fertility clinics and their overseas partners. And, where are the gloves? Everyone in the fertility clinic was around the biosafety hood with hairnet and mask sans gloves! Does no one care for the genetic/surrogate mothers’ safety? Where are the consumer rights groups that mandated themselves to protect people from enterprising salesmen in these “international health care agencies”? There are some missing pieces that could have made the documentary a more valuable project. The one thing that stood out for me was how dominant the Hindi-turned-Islamic surrogate was, in deciding to take on such a project. There are undergraduates in universities here with less tact/guile than her, and I would not easily associate her with the slums of Mumbai. Perhaps its for the best that the filmmakers did not interview any neighbours, leaving Aasia in peace to raise her own children as best she can – which is really what both families involved in the film ever wanted for themselves.

Made in India will be screened twice more in the festival:

May 2 (Sunday) @ 6:45pm, Cumberland 2
May 9 (Sunday) @ 8:00pm, Innis Town Hall

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews