Thursday, September 25, 2003

The Age - "Fathers and son" by Annmaree Bellman

A new film follows two Melbourne men's quest to become gaydads . By Annmaree Bellman.

AFTER three years of IVF, a Melbourne couple are counting the days to the arrival of their first child: decorating the nursery, buying up big at Babyco. They're ready for the dash to the hospital - in Iowa.

Tony Wood and Lee Matthews are gay. Prohibitive Australian legislation about same-sex parenting has led them into an expensive overseas surrogacy deal. They're flying to America not just to meet their baby, but its birth mother. Filmed at claustrophobically close quarters, their pursuit of parenthood makes for one heck of a road movie.

The story's complexities intrigued director Emma Crimmings when she learned of their plan three years ago. Tony worked at the same law firm as her partner and had even appeared in one of her earlier films, but he and Lee refused an initial request to document this experience. "It was too confronting," says Crimmings, who studied documentary-making in the University of Melbourne's VCA program. "It wasn't until they got pregnant that we talked about it seriously, about what would be involved and whether they would be willing to take that leap."

The leap was considerable. Crimmings was a friend but the film is no glowing tribute to surrogacy, nor a glib treatise on gay parenting. The couple's desire to be parents collides constantly with the bald realities of buying a baby. Empathy with their predicament and connection with these humorous, committed, anxious dads-to-be takes flight, for instance, with the news that the Iowan mother-of-two having their baby might not breastfeed. Negotiations loom. "We have always wanted to be able to access our surrogate's colostrum," says Tony. It exemplifies the unflinching nature of a film that simultaneously delights and discomforts.

"When they first saw the film, there were lots of things in it that were deeply confronting," says Crimmings. "There's not a lot of people who could deal with having that mirror thrown at them, particularly in such an intimate context. We negotiated some things but overall they permitted me to make the film I wanted." They participated not least because it highlighted the situation of gay couples wanting children in what Crimmings describes as "1950s Howard Australia".

"They have an agenda - they're political about this issue and the only way change is going to be invoked is through awareness and, as Tony said, it's like the best-quality home video; a legacy for (their son) Alexander."

Crimmings began shooting in July 2002, her job as curator of projects at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image shoehorning the film into weekends until it came time to board the plane last December. It is a starkly intimate film, Crimmings trapping faces in close-up, capturing quips, spats, frustration. The emotional tension accelerates when we meet Junoa, the surrogate mother whose outward serenity belies evident conflict. Her participation, which adds immeasurable power to the film, almost didn't happen. "I had a chat to the guys and said `Look, I think it will benefit the story and provide all of the aspects of this journey if she speaks. And it would soften it, frankly.' The guys were understandably protective of her but after the birth Junoa gave us all a bit of a gift and agreed to be part of the project. I think she was actually thankful for the ability to externalise it."

Junoa's inner turmoil is largely unspoken, voiced instead by a midwife whose perspective, alongside that of the head of the LA surrogacy agency who brokered the deal, is one of the film's strengths. Their views, and the responses of other players along the way, answer the questions both the situation and audience demand. "This has got nothing to do with my politics or anyone else's,' says Crimmings. "It's about revealing the story. As a viewer you search your own morals and ethics about what's happening and you need all the information to do that. There is a commercial reality to this and an emotional reality (for Junoa). You don't have to judge, but you have to ask questions."

Condensing 50 hours of footage into 50 minutes became a feat of sensitivity. The result is a finely shaded portrayal with unexpected twists. Tony and Lee didn't envisage Junoa playing a role in Alexander's life after the birth but, as their relationship evolved, all three had to adapt to human rather than contractual imperatives. Junoa plans to visit the new family later this year. "There's the complexity," concludes Crimmings. "They entered into a commercial arrangement but it carries the comet tail of emotion. I think that even surprised the guys. They have a marvellous relationship with Junoa now, a real friendship, and she will play an important role, even if a distant one, in Alexander's life."

Two Men and a Baby screens on Tuesday at 7.30pm on SBS.

No comments: