[…] Despite being filmed over several years that would have produced tons of footage, we find an expertly developed dramaturgical arc (Tania Stöcklin editing) from Belobrovaja’s excitement at conception, her crisis of concern as the inquiry deepens, and a final resolve that defers any doubt to a social-political act and cultural relativism.
[…] Responding to «Menschenskind!» in this way mitigates the damage caused to children of disinterested sperm donors (cultural and religious acceptance aside) and successfully brokers a more disturbing idea that haunts humanity: is selfishness the core of all existence?
Hats off to Marina Belobrovaja for making a full-length documentary while parenting solo; certainly, no easy feat. Nelly, Belobrovaja’s daughter, is a sperm donor child and the film is largely a series of interviews with other sperm donor children, now adults, and with men who help lesbian couples conceive. She utilises the documentary style to understand how to help Nelly «deal with her background».
Menschenskind! is an intensely intimate and at times discomforting inquiry that raises significant questions about who has the right to bear children. Belobrovaja tacks between filming conversations with her family in Israel from her flat in Zurich, snippets of Nelly being all feet, sleep, laughter and tantrums, and highly articulate interviewees whose answers excoriate Belobrovaja as she realises the significance of her decision to seek a disinterested progenitor.
Despite being filmed over several years that would have produced tons of footage, we find an expertly developed dramaturgical arc (Tania Stöcklin editing) from Belobrovaja’s excitement at conception, her crisis of concern as the inquiry deepens, and a final resolve that defers any doubt to a social-political act and cultural relativism. Various kinds of footage, both observational (Nelly) and contrived (interviews, conversations, pedestrian actions), accompany each revelation and the impact of exposure; they are small visual parentheses or asides to help us feel the gravitas of Belobrovaja’s choice. The sound composition (Trixa Arnold and Ilja Komarov) augments the minutiae of its viscerality. We study her face during Skype conversations: a mirror infinitely reflecting a decision that will impact generations.
Her longitudinal approach to the topic illumines ornate decision-making processes and outcomes for the parents to fulfil their desire to create a life; a life without agency. The film shines a focus on the negative lived experiences of adult sperm donor children when the father remains anonymous and disinterested in any social and emotional engagement; or where the possibility of half-siblings unknown to each other proliferate beyond double digits.
The heuristic power of the film beyond Belobrovaja’s individual story lies in a voice recording of Nelly’s biological father Noë, known to her as «the man who helped» her mother. He speaks of his desire for immortality: «I’d like to live forever». On his death bed he would like all 60 of his children—connected through his Facebook page—to stand by his bed, allowing him «to see that a living being derived from [him] remains in the world». He goes on to say «that’s why you give life to then have the feeling that you live on in someone else».
The explicitness of his hyperbolic narcissism does not alarm me, nor any permutation of an alternative to the conventional nuclear family structure, as much as what lies at the heart of deciding to have a child regardless of how or of who is involved. Rarely is this decision made selflessly; it is a biologically and/or culturally selfish act. We want children so that we can feel complete and avoid the possibility of emptiness once the biological clock stops ticking. We want children in order to save a relationship, or destroy one; to «give something back to life», to love and teach a child and hopefully be loved back. No matter what good cultural intentions or moral dressings we lay thick to hide this biological selfishness, children turn into adults who often feel unwanted, unloved, not enough or unaware that they are too much. These children beget children and humanity gets caught up in a vicious loop.
Responding to Menschenskind! in this way mitigates the damage caused to children of disinterested sperm donors (cultural and religious acceptance aside) and successfully brokers a more disturbing idea that haunts humanity: is selfishness the core of all existence? This is something Nietzsche would praise: life devoid of selflessness. Does Sandra, who categorically denies ever wanting children, become one of the selfless? Or is it the one who desperately wants but suffers by denying themselves the “right to a child”? The human race stomps on with unwarranted, self-perpetuating narcissism and selfishness, smoothed over by all measure of polite salves: morality, psychology and God’s love.
Menschenskind! is a gift to Nelly from her mother who is clearly fighting to support the ways in which she might process her origins. It’s not entirely clear from such a personal narrative where Belobrovaja is headed as a filmmaker, but she has made some promising choices in creative collaboration.
Text: Jodie McNeilly-Renaudie
First published: May 03, 2021
Menchenskind! – Our Child | Film | Marina Belobrovaja | CH 2021 | 82’ | Visions du Réel Nyon 2021, Solothurner Filmtage 2022