There can’t be many charming, unassuming and funny films that begin with a man masturbating into a plastic cup. But I saw one last night. Starbuck, a French-Canadian film about a prolific sperm donor was first drawn to my attention by the French co-owner of one of London’s leading fertility clinics. She wanted to know if I had seen it and what I thought about it. The trek to the small S.Kensington cinema where it was showing proved too much for us entrenched N.Londoners so I sent for a copy from Canadian Amazon. It is in French with English sub-titles.
David (sounds so much sexier in French than in English) is a perma-teen in his forties who only has a job as a meat delivery man because his father owns a large butcher’s shop. His adult life has been a series of poor judgements that have led to considerable debt and as the film opens he is (unsuccessfully) growing cannabis in his flat in order to raise money. Two things then occur almost simultaneously. His girlfriend tells him she is pregnant and the clinic where he donated sperm twenty odd years ago contacts him to say that he was responsible for 533 children being born and that 142 have taken out a class action to challenge the anonymity that he was guaranteed at the time. David hires his reluctant father of four lawyer friend to defend this action and as part of the disclosure of papers David finds himself with an envelope of A4 sheets containing details about and photographs of each of the litigants. This is of course poetic licence as it would never happen in real life, but allows us to watch David slowly giving in to his curiosity and one by one looking at information about the young people he has helped bring into being. He begins not only to find them but to try and act as their Guardian Angel (admitting to his friend that he could never be a father to this many children)…cheering for the footballer, helping the methadone addict, encouraging passers by to give money to the busker and regularly visiting a young man who is profoundly disabled. So not all pretty stories. One day, following a young gay offspring, he ends up in a meeting of all the litigants discussing how this Starbuck guy has been asked to reveal himself but refuses to do so. Finding the microphone in his hand David says something about not necessarily needing to know who Starbuck is because this action has brought them all together as family. Again, this is of course a highly unlikely and romanticised scenario, but had enough elements of truth – donor conceived people mostly do get a lot out of meeting up with half-siblings – to stop me reaching for the sick bag.
The plot gets a little silly when one of the offspring, a Dracula look-alike vegetarian, takes up temporary residence with David (we never learn how he found out who he was) and then takes him on a country weekend with the litigant group without revealing who he is. A national media storm follows this weekend with Starbuck being talked about and reviled on every ‘phone in and chat show. David feels he must reveal himself, but around the same time the people he owes money to show up, half-drown his father and his two brothers demand that the money owed is paid pronto. The only way to do this is to counter-sue the litigant group for maligning his good name…
I’m not going to reveal the detail of the ending of this film in case you get the chance to see it, but suffice to say that at a dinner to introduce his girlfriend to the family, David’s big heart and reason for donating so many years ago is made known. And in the end the extended family networks are acknowledged and celebrated in a way that I think all parties to the donor conception triangle would find satisfactory. Lovely, funny, life-enhancing film.
Now to the play. The Guardian at the weekend is often a source of blog material and so it proved on Saturday. Flicking through the Guide I came across publicity for the really lovely play Firing Blanks by very talented donor conceived adult playwright and director Tom Spencer. Instead of looking at the donor conception story from the point of view of a person conceived this way, Tom has chosen to write – with great insight and sensitivity – from the perspective of an infertile man facing his own inability to create a child biologically and needing help from a donor to have a family. If you live in or near Bath do try and get along to the Ustinov Studio and catch this wonderful play between Thursday 10th and Saturday 12th January.
And so to the TV…a documentary last night about the Hewitt Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Liverpool followed four couples going through IVF treatment. It also introduced us to some of the behind the scenes staff, focusing on the embryologists as they selected eggs and sperm to go in the petri dish to ‘get on with it’ and injected a single sperm into an egg in the ICSI procedure needed for a couple with male factor fertility problems. Knowing as much as I do about fertility treatment I found it frustrating that little was said about embryo quality as being the vital factor in creating a viable pregnancy, but I suspect for most people this was enough…and returning to the topic I started the first sentence of this blog with…particularly the visit to the mastabatorium where they have classy flat screen TVs on which to show the apparently necessary porn instead of the tatty magazines Starbuck had to make do with. We also met a sperm donor, a nice young man who said that he understood about men really wanting to be a father and how you could love someone you were not biologically related to because he loved his step-dad very much.
Only one of the four couples we saw having egg collection and then embryo transfer conceived on the treatment cycles we witnessed. Two of the couples went on to have a further IVF attempt, one conceived but tragically with an ectopic pregnancy and other was unsuccessful. So IVF is a miracle but as we could see only too plainly one that puts couples through enormous strain and has only limited success. And these were NHS cycles, two being possible at the Hewitt, so no financial strain to add to the emotional toll. Like all fertility clinics I am quite sure the staff are lovely and completely dedicated to helping make families for those who want them, but if that Charles Kingsland told me and my husband to have sex up against the wall in my mother in law’s house to prompt my husband into having super sperm, I’d punch him in the face!
The Fertility Clinic will be on BBC iPlayer for the next six days. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ps8yc