[Editor's note: Throughout this piece, the term "surrogate" is used as colloquial shorthand for gestational carrier (GC). The American Society of Reproductive Medicine defines a gestational carrier as "an arrangement where a woman carries and delivers a child for another couple or person (intended parent[s]). When using a GC, the eggs used to make the embryos do not come from the carrier. Because the eggs will be retrieved from one woman and implanted in another, this technique requires the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF)."]
It's a scene many adult women can relate to—two unacquainted women sit next to each other, eating lunch at a baby shower. They make small talk, one telling the other she's a coworker of the mother-to-be. "And how about you, what's your connection?"
"I'm just the surrogate!" replies the other, relishing the polite shock on her neighbor's face. They share a good-humored laugh.
This is Made in Boise, a film full of compassion, heart and an intimate entry point into the human side of commercial surrogacy in the U.S.—which has been on the rise for the past 20 years and is currently experiencing a boom in Boise, Idaho. Directed and produced by Beth Aala, an award-winning filmmaker and mother of two, the film follows four different women who have chosen to be gestational carriers as they navigate their agreement to carry a child (or two) for intended parents they met through an agency.
As the stories unfold and relationships develop on screen, it is immediately reinforced that these women are more than 'just' surrogates. All of the strong women featured have their own stack of responsibilities beyond their surrogacy arrangement—Nicole, the woman from the opening baby shower scene, is on her fourth(!) surrogacy journey. She is also a mother of two and the CEO of A Host of Possibilities, the local surrogacy and egg donor agency through which we meet our other subjects.
Chelsea, carrying twins on her second surrogacy journey, is a mother to four of her own children.
Cindy, taking on her first surrogacy pregnancy at 42, is a NICU nurse and a single mother of five (two biological, three adopted).
Sammie is a 26-year-old nail technician and single mother to a toddler.
All women choose to carry for different reasons, and each face different challenges and triumphs along their way— physical, emotional and cultural. (All are heroes, in my book).
See a clip of the film's youngest featured surrogate, Sammie, here:
We had the opportunity to catch up with the film's director and producer, Beth Aala, and the film's producer, Beth Levison, who both happen to be talented working mothers themselves.
Aala approached the story from a personal place. Shortly after having her second child eight years ago, a close friend who had struggled with many years of infertility and repeat miscarriages asked Aala to be a gestational carrier for her child. Though she was not personally interested in being pregnant again, Aala did say yes knowing the difficulties her friend had faced, and having firsthand experience with how life-changing motherhood could be.
Months after agreeing, her friend became pregnant, so Beth didn't end up acting as a surrogate. Regardless, the experience remained with her.
Aala explains, "The ask of it all framed my perspective when the story did come to me, and I thought—okay. I need to tell this story. I've had so many friends who have struggled getting pregnant and starting their families... and as a mom, I know what it's like to have a child. I know the joys of it all and how incredibly meaningful—it's something that has changed my life."
It is worth acknowledging that commercial surrogacy remains a divisive issue the world over, and was notably banned earlier this year in India due to exploitation concerns. This particular film does not seek to tell a story of exploitation. By contrast, these stories seem to present a cross section of better-case scenarios—these are empowered women making a very personal choice, and they all ultimately share the drive of helping someone else become a parent.
One of the most powerful elements of this film is how Aala alludes to the remarkable web of female support found in this particular surrogacy community. There's Nicole, who runs the surrogacy agency and is seemingly always fielding phone calls from surrogates, offering support, checking in on them throughout pregnancy and postpartum. There's a surrogacy support group where carriers find normalcy and connection, joking about how they love to be pregnant but don't want to raise any more kids, or how hard it can be to explain the carrier role to their own mothers. We see female lawyers and advocates helping surrogates navigate the logistical complications of their contracts.
When Aala first began researching the story, this web of women nurturing and supporting each other to make sure all parties are protected immediately came into sharp relief, drawing her further in. (She also intentionally staffed the film with an all-female crew, extending that web of female support behind the camera, as well.)
"That was really why I wanted it to be told from the point of view of the surrogates. Because one—I feel like their role is very misunderstood. Two—I wanted to have these female protagonists that make you think about these complicated decisions. And they are surrounded by these incredibly supportive female characters... that was just so inspiring to me."
For the first year of production, Beth didn't have funding, a restriction that forced her to do a lot of the shooting herself, often using borrowed cameras. But this stripped-down approach was also a strategic choice, and one that I believe impacts the outcome of the film in beautiful, emotionally-resonant ways. Her minimalist shoot profile enabled her to capture such intimate moments in intimate spaces—in family homes, doctor checkups, during the otherwise-private moments of in vitro fertilization and birth. (The film's intimate access is, of course, also a testament to the trust these women gave Aala, putting their stories in her capable hands).
In one particularly poignant scene, surrogate Sammie is recovering from the C-section birth of the child she carried, while parents David and Todd excitedly (and a bit nervously, as is par for the course of any new parent) have skin-to-skin snuggles with their newborn in a nearby room. The moment brought me back to my own postpartum experiences, as I tried to imagine how it might feel to be seated in post-birth recovery when the baby you carried and delivered wasn't, in fact, yours.
Sammie tells the camera about how she felt a sudden wave of anxiety before the C-section procedure began. But lying on the operating table, she was able to calm herself by visualizing how David and Todd had played and bonded with her son on a playground just the day prior. By focusing on the trust she held that they were going to be great parents, she felt a subsequent wave of happiness and calm as she prepared to give birth.
As a viewer, I felt a comparable emotional reaction watching these two fathers finally meet the baby they'd dreamed of for the first time on screen. On a personal level, it was revelatory for me to acknowledge that Sammie's primary emotional connection seemed to be to the parents, rather than to the baby she carried for them. Through this process, these recent strangers had forged a unique, real and beautiful bond.
In speaking about why she wanted to help shepherd this film to screen, producer Beth Levison explained how she was drawn to Beth Aala's clear vision for the film—noting the warm, inviting, and at times playful tone she crafted. (It's easy to grasp what Levison refers to. I especially enjoyed the buffer-bar graphics denoting how far along a woman is in her pregnancy, and the birds-eye flyover shots that seemed to emphasize an ordered, idyllic suburban oasis of homes, lawns and beautiful Boise vistas. These floating shots were a nice visual counterpoint to the complex human stories at play on the ground).
Levison added, "If this film is one that can get people talking about surrogacy and thinking more deeply about it—thinking about legislation, thinking about how we protect women, how we look out for unique families and think about them and provide for them, then I think it's really important. I think there's a tendency for us as a culture maybe to emphasize or talk about 'natural' births—whether that's the correct phrase or not—but you know, the narrative is very much about people having their own babies. And if this film can change that narrative, I think that's really important, because I think there are many other narratives at play in 2019."
In an early scene in the film that takes place in The Host of Possibilities agency office, there's a slightly-lingering detail shot on a piece of wall decor—an Idaho state map, striped in rainbow colors, inscribed with the beautiful words, "Ultimately, the one thing that makes a family is love."
This positive sentiment is woven throughout the film, which left me thinking about how the life-changing experience of becoming a parent can create a universal thread of connection to other humans who are parents, too—and how there truly are myriad ways to form your family.
"Made in Boise" is a sensitive, woman-centered and thought-provoking exploration of one of those ways.