Embracing the Odds

Amanda Micheli’s own saga informed her wrenching documentary, “Vegas Baby,” about the tenacity to conceive.


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Photos courtesy of Amanda Micheli

For a number of years, the Las Vegas headquarters of the Sher Fertility Clinics chain would hold a contest for a free in-vitro fertilization cycle. Hundreds of couples and singles at the end of their options and/or resources submitted heart-rending video applications, and a jury chose a deserving winner. Alas, the ultimate prize couldn’t be guaranteed, of course, because not every IVF round results in a birth.

Oakland filmmaker Amanda Micheli’s rivetingly intimate documentary, Vegas Baby, now available on iTunes and airing June 27 on PBS after a year of festival and community screenings around the country, follows three contest entrants on their uncertain, high-stakes journeys. The winning couple embarks on an IVF round at Sher, while the other two (including a single woman) grapple with alternate courses of action—and the attendant emotional, psychological, and financial challenges.

Even if the prospective parents aren’t religious, there’s still a stigma in some circles associated with using medical advances to conceive. “I didn’t know when I was getting into this how many judgments there would be around this subject matter,” said Micheli, whose acclaimed, nationally broadcast films include Just for the Ride (student Oscar), Double Dare, and the Oscar-nominated La Corona. “It was hard to get support from the foundations that support documentaries. Institutionally, there’s a lack of empathy for this issue.”

 

Amanda Micheli.

In post-screening Q-&-As, Micheli repeatedly encountered people who’d bottled up their experiences trying to have children and had suffered in silence. “It’s a subject matter people are really private about, but there are even more compelling reasons for people to talk about it,” Micheli asserted. “The most common stereotype I face is that the people doing IVF are selfish.”

While Vegas Baby invites us to contemplate how far we’d go to have a child—and, yes, the subjects consider adoption—there’s a point where the viewer can only empathize with the pain and price of each subject’s uncompromising determination. It’s so personal and so deep that an outsider’s judgment is irrelevant.

Vegas Baby explicitly opens a window for discussion among women and couples who’ve struggled to conceive. But Micheli acknowledged she also wants to expand understanding and empathy among a wider audience. “I care about the infertility community,” she said, “but the biggest goal is reaching the ‘fertile’ community.”

That aspiration, one surmises, derives from her own painful saga and the attitudes she encountered. She met her husband in her 30s, and the career-driven duo didn’t rank a family among their priorities until Micheli was 39. When they couldn’t conceive, they were referred to an infertility doctor, informed it was a sperm-count problem, and spent their life savings on an IVF cycle.

“It completely changed our perspective,” Micheli recalled. “It didn’t work, we were completely disappointed, and I was amazed at my own ignorance. As a filmmaker, how do I take this personal tragedy and turn it into something and meaningful for other people? And can we try again?”

That’s right, Micheli struggled with her own infertility problems while making Vegas Baby. “It probably wasn’t a genius idea,” Micheli said, laughing. “I was going through treatment while making the film, and then we discovered my husband had testicular cancer. Thankfully, he’s in remission and doing great, but it put an immense strain on our marriage.”

Micheli did get pregnant two years ago but miscarried at 10 weeks. So she took a pause to focus on the film. Now, she confided, “after soul-searching and looking at our various options, we’re doing a cycle with an egg donor while in the thick of releasing the movie. There’s something insane that I’m injecting myself on the plane to my Las Vegas premiere, and in some ways, it’s perfectly fitting.”

As with everything about Vegas Baby, Micheli’s experience informed her strategy for expanding its impact via an online interactive community in the works with Resolve: The National Infertility Association. (Visit VegasBabyFilm.com for more info.)

“I’m in a place where if [egg donation] doesn’t work, I’m looking forward to healing and moving on,” Micheli said. “It’s very tricky to find closure when you’ve been trying so hard and dedicating so much of your life to this quest. To know when to give up, or change course, it’s important that all of those options are validated. Couples going through this need to find whatever resolution works best for them so they don’t get stuck on a hamster wheel addicted to hope. It can take a real toll.”

 

Published online on June 20, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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