Technological advances improve life in unexpected ways, but they can also complicate it, as the new documentary In His Image, by Tami Ravid, shows. The film, which will be shown at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on January 3, 7 and 8, is a moving look at the choice by some bereaved Israeli families of fallen soldiers to use their sons’ frozen sperm to have babies. This option, made possible by sperm extraction and freezing and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques, offers some families a consolation for their loss, but as the film shows, it is not a simple choice.
The film’s narration reveals that sperm can live for three days after death, which gives these families a window of opportunity to request this extraction procedure. But even if they accomplish this task, they must petition the government to be allowed to use the sperm, which is especially complicated in cases where a soldier’s widow declines to use the sperm herself. The attempt to use the frozen sperm often leads to a complicated and essentially futile quest to explain and prove what the soldier himself would have wanted, since few young men talk about this matter, let alone explicitly state their wishes.
The film, which was supported by the Dutch Cultural Media Fund and the NPO Fund, and produced by Witfilm, follows three families grasping with this issue. One single mother from the Ukraine, Ludmilla, is still mourning the death of her son, German. She won permission to have his sperm used and is delighted to be the grandmother of a toddler granddaughter, Veronica. “I’m as happy as a mother can be who has lost her child,” she says. She speaks eloquently, even poetically, of what her experience of grief has been like and it seems that her fight for her granddaughter to be born has given her life a new purpose. Now, she is mulling an attempt to have another grandchild with her son’s sperm.
Ron and Haderet are a couple who would love to be facing Ludmilla’s dilemma. Their son, Shaked, fell in a training accident in 2004 and his widow chose not to use his sperm. Now that she has moved on into a marriage and has had a child, Shaked’s parents want permission to use his sperm with another woman and are mired in a legal battle. These parents, who adopted two children after Shaked’s death and have other biological children, find this issue dominates their life and Shaked’s mother urges one of her young adult adopted children to create a will saying what he would like to do in regard to this issue. She even calls the parents of a deceased police officer the day after his death to try to alert them to this option.
The Fitusis are a couple who lost Matan, one of their sons, to cancer while he was a soldier. They have won their legal fight and have found Inbal, a divorced woman who wants to carry the child but nothing about any of this is easy. Inbal is over 40 and, according to the fertility doctor, is not that likely to become pregnant. Perhaps the most moving moments in the entire film come at a memorial service marking the 11th anniversary of their son’s death, when the mother tells a relative that she is doing everything to fulfill her son’s wish. “His first wish would be for you to live again,” the relative replies. “You’ve been dead for 11 years.”
Some may find something objectionable and unnatural about this process and these concerns are given voice by Inbal’s coworker: What were the son’s true wishes? Will the child be loved for him or herself, or will he or she just be a walking reminder of the deceased? What will the mother and grandparents say when the child asks about their father someday? Isn’t the whole idea morbid and creepy?
The director is firmly on the side of the parents and she will likely win over any viewers who watch the movie. No matter what your point of view, this movie invites you to put yourself in the shoes of these parents and you realize that it is an extraordinarily complicated issue.
More than anything else, it is a movie about bereaved parents and their attempt to cope with an unending sense of loss. I was impressed by the positive ways in which the parents chose to move on. Ludmilla volunteers on an army base, helping with household chores for the soldiers. Shaked’s parents have planted almond trees where their son was killed and in addition to adopting more children, they fight politically for this issue, so other families won’t have to go through the legal battle they have. The Fitusis forge on with their normal household routine, even as the mother fights against crushing depression. You may find yourself wondering how you would manage if you found yourself in a similar situation and filled with admiration for them.