Surrogacy Cinema 

Made in Boise will lead the new season of Independent Lens on PBS

click to enlarge 'Made in Boise' covers the slew of surrogate mothers in Boise.

Beth Aala

'Made in Boise' covers the slew of surrogate mothers in Boise.

It was the summer of 2017, and Beth Aala was anxious. For a year, the New York City filmmaker had been traveling to faraway Boise to shoot a documentary she felt had great promise. By borrowing cameras and staying with a friend, she had managed to make ends meet. But now she was running out of money.

"I was ready to throw in the towel," said Aala, 44, the recipient of three Emmy Awards and a Peabody.

Just a few months later, Aala got the bump she needed—$100,000 from the International Documentary Association.

"I nearly cried, because it kept the life of the film going," she said.

Two years later, her 90-minute documentary, Made in Boise, is screening at film festivals around the country. On Monday, Oct. 28, at 10 p.m., it will lead off the new season of Independent Lens on PBS.

"That's the biggest compliment ever," said Aala. "It's such an honor."

Made In Boise Trailer from beth aala on Vimeo.

Made in Boise is also about last chances—to have a child—and the film takes an intimate look at a controversial way to do that: paid surrogacy.

The project's genesis dates to 2015, when Aala was chatting with a childhood friend. The woman, then a nurse at St. Luke's Boise Medical Center, mentioned a trend among her female colleagues. They were carrying babies for other people.

"She simply said, 'Everybody at the hospital is doing it,'" said Aala.

Her storytelling instincts piqued, Aala flew to Boise. It turns out that the Treasure Valley is a hotbed for the practice, with numerous surrogacy agencies and a program at St. Luke's to assist surrogates and intended parents.

There's a number of possible reasons, including more women here who want to be surrogates, lower fees and the fact that Idaho doesn't regulate the industry, which some states do. (Forty-eight U.S. states allow paid surrogacy in some form. It is illegal in New York and Michigan.)

Some surrogates are carrying for same-sex couples, or for people in countries where paid surrogacy is illegal due to concerns over the "commodification" of women's bodies.

Unlike traditional surrogates, who donate their egg and also carry the child, many surrogates now are "gestational carriers," implanted with an embryo not biologically related to them.

Aala, who herself had been asked by a friend to be a surrogate, decided she wanted to tell a more layered story about the practice than the one popularized by the controversial 1986 "Baby M" case.

"Folks who choose this path are choosing it because it's their last resort," said Aala. "And it's a complicated decision. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there."

It's a story that's carried, so to speak, by the gestational surrogates whose journeys she follows. At the center is Boisean Nicole Williamson, a four-time surrogate. In 2013, Williamson founded "A Host of Possibilities," a firm that matches surrogates with intended parents and supports both parties through the process.

Williamson started her agency with three gestational carriers and now has almost 100. She pays surrogates between $28,000 and $38,000, but bristles at the charge that the women do it just for the money, or that being paid is inherently negative.

"Some of them use it to go to school," she said. "It's a win-win. We get to help someone have a baby and complete their family. And then we get to do something with the money."

She's also dumbfounded by the idea that it would be difficult for surrogates to give the child to the intended parents.

"You're not giving it up," said Williamson. "You're giving their baby back to them. It was never yours to begin with. The look that you see on the parent's face when they see their baby for the first time is the most amazing thing ever. ... That's why you do it."

It's a sentiment shared by Samantha Diaz, 29, one of three other gestational carriers in the film. She was a surrogate for Seattle couple David and Todd.

"I adore them," Diaz said. "They're amazing parents. I'd like to have all their children if I could."

Aala said the more than 20 trips she made to Boise helped her overcome her own stereotypes—about Idaho.

"I was so excited to see that there were a group of women who were...serving unique families that don't necessarily look like the makeup of Boise or Idaho," she said.

"I didn't know that Idaho could be so progressive and warm and welcoming."

She's enthused about returning to the city where Made in Boise was itself made, for a screening of the film on Saturday, Oct. 5.

"It was important for me to come back to Boise with a film to show the community who has been so generous with me," said Aala. "You can't even believe how excited I am."

Diaz also is excited because she may get to meet one-year-old Milo, the baby she carried.

She hopes the documentary will open up more conversation about surrogacy.

"Even now it's this thing that's so taboo and people are afraid to talk about it," said Diaz. "So I'm hoping we can shed light on the situation. ... Because it's happening. It's real."

Made in Boise will screen at the Egyptian Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 5, at 6 p.m. Admission is free, but seating is limited. RSVP at idahoptv.org.

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