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True/False Conversations: Hopeful parents turn to online sperm donation groups in 'Spermworld'

A photo of Lance Oppenheim in front of cherry blossoms.
Courtesy of Lance Oppenheim
Lance Oppenheim was approached by New York Times writer Nellie Bowles to explore the world of sperm donation. "Spermworld" releases March 29 on Hulu and FX.

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Fest.  Find the rest of them here.

"Spermworld" is a feature documentary directed by Lance Oppenheim that unveils the online world of sperm donation. The film closely follows three online donors who help women get pregnant through Facebook groups. Lance was inspired by Nellie Bowles’ New York Times article, “The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand.” KBIA’s Lily Carroll sat down with Lance to learn more about the making of the film.

Here's an excerpt from their conversation:

Lance Oppenheim: Nellie herself, she was looking for sperm. And I knew that, she's a friend. She didn't like the options at the sperm banks. And so she happened on these Facebook groups that were completely unregulated, where people could basically, "Hey, I'm ovulating. Is anyone available?"

"Yes, I'm available," and they'll meet up and you know, complete strangers in the middle of the night, meeting in a motel four in the morning, they'd have a child. And so she, after she discovered this world, she came to me pretty quickly and just was like, "I think there's something here, do you want to help me look into it?"

Lily Carroll: How did you with those Facebook groups, narrow it down and pick your subjects?

Oppenheim: Well, yeah, you know, I mean, it's, it's just like most things with the internet, right? If you're on like Tinder or Hinge or whatever, any dating app, there's always going to be some strange people that you probably don't want to spend time with, right? ... But there's also a lot of people that are just looking and longing for, for a change in their life, both men and women. And so I think that was the thing that to me, you know, I had a team of great people, producers, we basically went across the groups looking for that as the, you know, the premium, almost the idea that, you know, we should find people who, whose ambitions whose dreams whose hopes are tied into having a child as an unfulfilled dream. The desire to change your life by creating new lives. That was the thing that was sort of the guiding principle to get us to where we landed.

Carroll: Explain the expectations versus reality of the actual donation insemination process, how did that you know differ from subject to subject?

Oppenheim: Well, every person in the film has a different process for how they go about donations. So you have you have some people that prefer or to do things as impersonally and transactional as possible. And then you have other folks who, like Steve and Rachel in the film, it becomes a lot deeper. And maybe it is a little bit more transactional at first, but the routine, you know, the attempts, the constant attempts, the continued attempts to try and have a child when it doesn't work, kind of forces two very different types of people that maybe would never even talk to each other into very close contact with one another.

And the donations in the movie were almost like a springboard for so many other things, like how do two people who are so different from each other and are practically strangers that are meeting maybe for the first time to have a child, how do they relate to one another? How do they endear themselves to each other? What happens emotionally? It's so complicated for you know, for both parties, the more attempts, people would try to have a child, the more I think the impersonal, the transactional nature of these donations became a lot more human. By the time we finished filming, I realized that we had this very interesting tapestry, the successful donation at the beginning being the most impersonal and transactional, and the ones that maybe didn't work becoming the most human and emotional.

"Spermworld" is showing at this year’s True/False Film Fest, and will be streaming on Hulu and FX on March 29.

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