Parenting is not for the weak.
– Douglas Davidson, father of two.
There’s a growing trend right now with birth rates in the U.S. dropping compared to previous generations. According to a March 2021 CDC report, as of 2019, birth rates in the United States were on the decline and had hit a record low. As of November 2021, Pew Research Center found a growing share of adults without children. Considering that polling was done after the start of the pandemic as families were still dealing (and continue to deal with) food shortages, medicine shortages, declining or stagnant wages, rising housing costs, rising childcare costs, and medical coverage that’s either covered at a high premium or (for some) not at all, who would want to start a family now? This doesn’t even take into account those who want to have kids, but, for one reason or another, are unable to do so. For those who want children but can’t handle the cost of IVF (which can cost five-figures just to do it once), there’s one man who, for the last few years, has offered his own sperm to women in need: no strings, no demands, no requirements. This man, Ari Nagel, is the subject of co-director’s Yair Cymerman and Adi Rabinovici’s film The Baby Daddy (ארי והזרע הקדוש), having its California premiere during Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023. Presented with a sense of whimsy about an unorthodox situation, The Baby Daddy doesn’t so much interrogate Nagel’s choices, but, through him, asks us to consider how we view parenting, what makes someone a father, and at what point does the guise of being a mensch fail to shield someone from the undue trauma they create?
Ari Nagel is an educator at a Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, a former member of the Orthodox Jewish community, and the father of more than 100 children. He has three children by one woman, his ex, and the rest are with women to whom he’s donated semen. Whatever reaction you have to this news will absolutely color how you view Cymerman and Rabinovici’s documentary and that somehow makes it far more fascinating. The Baby Daddy is told in semi-chronological order, with one scene informing us that some events are in 2018 with, later, the presence of masks indicating that events captured before us take place in a time more current. One thing that is locked in, though, is the number of children at the start of the doc versus the end and the number jumps from the 30s to triple digits. In between, Cymerman and Rabinovici track Ari as he travels internationally to discuss what he calls a hobby, one which gave him the nickname “The Sperminator,” as he goes about his regular life teaching and spending time with his eldest son, Tyler, being present with some of the children with whom he shares DNA, and engaging with his colleagues and family. Much of The Baby Daddy is a balancing act in which we hear from some of the moms to whom he donated, all of whom extoll his generosity, and everyone else who can’t understand why he does what he does. That we only hear from Ari a few times, never providing any kind of explanation directly or indirectly as to why he does this, and that the bulk of exploration comes from what others say make The Baby Daddy less of an exploration of Ari himself and more about what it means socially, ethically, spiritually, that he does what he does.
The void of Ari, the why he does what he does, can be chalked up to addiction or compulsion, a response to a feeling of lack of identity or purpose growing up in a highly religious household and a community that leans more toward hegemony than individuality. This, of course, is all a guess as the “why” is left out. It’s unclear if this is due to the coverage Ari has received prior to the start of the documentary, being featured in newspaper articles, on broadcast programs, and, yes, even going on Maury (he *is* the father). Especially when his time with Tyler, the only late-teen child we meet, is interrupted by his meeting with someone to make a donation, the audience’s response to what we see is immediately clouded by personal opinion. The lack of stance is often startling and something which I had to remember more than once. (If it matters, as I know several people to whom conception was a difficult proposition, I hold no judgement on someone who seeks out someone like Ari as a possible last resort, particularly because Ari’s been basically publically vetted which makes him less scary than other donors.) The arguments provided by Ari’s father or colleague to get him to stop line up with a certain religious morality that I, a Reform Jew, understand but disagree with; whereas the considerations raised by Tyler, as his son, carry far more weight. What does Ari give up by making these donation? What acts of trauma does Ari create by making these donations? Does Ari recognize that he’s not simply a donor of semen, but lending himself in ways that open himself up and his children in ways he cannot comprehend? In these moments, the documentary grows heavy and the cracks surrounding Ari as a mensch (Yiddish word meaning a person of integrity and honor; a person who does good works) become visibly prominent.
One cannot discount the incredible joy on display by the women to whom Ari’s donations gave children. It’s not just that they’re achieving their individual dream of being a parent, either. It’s that they’ve formed a community. This community that’s formed via the mothers and their children, finding support in each other where (Ari at one time implies) they may have been ostracized from their own communities or families. Unintentionally, Ari’s created a multi-state and multi-national village, providing comfort and support where they may not otherwise find it. But what does it take away, as well? Even if one ignores the five lawsuits seeking child support (mentioned only briefly and not fully explored) against him, Ari has only so much time to spend between each of his children and teaching, therefore he’s unable to give of himself as fully as his children want. In a moment included in the trailer, Tyler asks Ari if Ari should be granted credit for the things that Tyler does and the air is pregnant with anticipation at the answer. As I so often remind my eldest when he plays with his younger brother, children are not toys, they are people — to forget this, to view them as an extension of self instead of someone entirely different, hinders our ability to help them prosper because we only see them through the myopic lens of self. Children are so much more. One gets the sense that the Sperminator does not feel the same.
Even with the philosophical weight of the subject matter, Cymerman and Rabinovici recognize the fertile opportunity before them, using amusing animations at the start of the doc along with a jaunty score. Aspects of this continue, reproduced at times when one least expects it, inserting just a tiny bit of joy where the heavy philosophical/ethical load threatens to bring the entire doc to a screeching halt. To be frank, this is a ridiculous situation — Ari has over 100 children and counting by the end of the doc — but its real strength is in bringing some attention to the issue of fertility and medical expenses. The job of helping those who want to get pregnant should not fall on some dude and his desire to leave a mark on society via masturbation. Comical as it is, this is a serious subject with intense implications and the cumulative stimulation brought about by The Baby Daddy ends with less of an exhaustive climax and more of a frustrated one since there’s more to learn.
Screening during Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official The Baby Daddy website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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