Frozen Angels (documentary)

It is now possible to patent human genes. If someone discovers and isolates the gene that causes, say, colorblindness, he can patent it so that only he (or his authorized agents) can do the procedures necessary to prevent someone’s unborn child from being born with it. And of course for him to do it, you would have to pay him money. We have taken capitalism to a microscopic level.

“Frozen Angels” is a documentary by Eric Black and Frauke Sandig, whose “After the Fall” (1999) explored life in Germany after the Berlin Wall. They’re onto a different sort of new frontier now, discussing the current state of surrogate parenting, in-vitro fertilization and other reproductive science, and the ramifications of the latest developments. This they do for 90 minutes, which is unfortunate, because they only have 60 minutes of material. That hour is pretty solid, though.

The setting is L.A., where if anything can be made shinier or better through technology, it will be. Bill Handel is a talk show host on KFI AM 640, and he is also the beneficiary of reproductive science: He has two daughters who were born through in-vitro fertilization. He is now the head of an agency that coordinates surrogate mothers and egg donors, taking clients from all over the world.

We meet clients of his, and clients of other agencies. We meet a woman who sells her eggs, and a part-Hispanic woman who wishes she were white. We meet the head of a sperm bank (the “donation” rooms are, in fact, called “masturbatoriums”), and a woman who is an expert on the legal matters related to surrogate-mothering.

Most importantly, we meet Amy and Steve Jurewicz, an extremely well-educated couple who have been unable to conceive and who have tried every medical option except one. At last, for $80,000, they make an arrangement with Kim Brewer, an experienced surrogate mother. She has a baby for them.

The film follows Kim and the Jurewiczes through the pregnancy and birth, and I find Kim a fascinating figure. She has a military husband and a young son of her own, yet she loves having babies for other people. She claims not to have any attachment to the children she brings into the world, though how a woman can turn off the natural impulses she feels to love her offspring is beyond me. The look on her face as the Jurewiczes fawn over their newborn baby — the baby that was inside of Kim just minutes ago — is haunting. It speaks volumes about the human side of all this buying and trading.

The film dabbles a little in matters of genetic engineering. Someday it may be possible to have babies whose genes have been scrubbed clean beforehand, born without risk of any number of potential diseases or imperfections. The question is, how far will it go? If you learned your child was going to be born with a debilitating disease but that there was a way to prevent it, you’d do it, right? But what if you learned he was going to be born missing a finger? Or with one blind eye? Or with a tendency toward obesity? Or with dark hair, and you always wanted a blond? What degree of meddling is ethical, and when does it become frightening?

Black and Frauke do not dwell on those matters for long, though I wish they would have. There is too much padding in the movie — as in a lengthy sequence about beach-side body-builders — and not enough focus on the most fascinating aspects.

C+ (1 hr., 30 min.; Not Rated, probably PG for thematic material.)