‘Human Affairs’ examines the dynamics of surrogacy
January 20, 2018
Charlie Birns, writer and director of "Human Affairs" said the film, which is about a couple who chose to have a child by surrogacy, is for people who are interested in the complexity of the human condition.
"This film is for people who enjoy living inside of the questions of how we live and how we make our lives meaningful," Birns said. "I hope anyone who finds these existential questions interesting will have an opportunity to see this film."
"Human Affairs" will screen during the Slamdance Film Festival at 1:40 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 20, and 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 23, at Treasure Mountain Inn, 225 Main St.
Birns is looking forward to the film's debut in the film festival's Narrative Feature competition category.
"Slamdance appears to be a remarkable platform for a film that takes risks, as our does," he said. "We're thrilled to be premiering there, and the Slamdance team has been wonderful and generous in accepting the film. There has been a lot of positive energy."
The story is about a successful New York City couple. Sidney, portrayed by Dominic Fumusa, is a playwright and Lucina, played by Kerry Condon, is an actress.
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Julie Sokolowski plays Geneviève, a young French woman who agrees to give birth to their child. The plot thickens when Geneviève and Sidney struggle with their feelings about each other during the pregnancy.
Birns, who has worked for directors Jodie Foster, Sam Gold, Juan Antonio Bayona and acclaimed artist and filmmaker Liza Johnson, said he got the idea to write and direct the film because surrogacy is all over the news.
"Kanye West and Kim Kardashian just gave birth to a child via surrogate this week," he said. "And there was the politician [former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks from Arizona] who got into trouble because he asked two female staffers if they would become surrogates and carry his baby."
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine reported that the number of babies born in the United States as a result of gestational surrogacy was 1,593 in 2011.
"Surrogacy is fast becoming a standard practice of reproduction in our society," Birns said. "What's interesting about surrogacy is that it's viewed as a new technological phenomenon, but actually has historic roots."
The filmmaker referred to the story of Sarah, her husband Abraham and her servant Hagar in the Bible's book of Genesis.
"Sarah was unable to carry Abraham's child, so Hagar became the surrogate carrier," Birns said.
While the idea of surrogacy fascinated Birns enough to make the film, he was also interested in how the dynamic of surrogacy touches something "fundamental between human beings."
"Surrogacy from that angle becomes a wonderful vehicle to explore human interconnectedness and how we go about creating life, relationships and, very importantly to me, the way we are bound to each other as far as interdependencies between people," he said. "Ultimately the film to me is about the way we seek human connection and how we stumble and strive along the way."
The challenge of making "Human Affairs" is how to tell the story without overloading the audience with statistics and unreliable circumstances.
"The difficult aspect of telling a story about three people is that there can be a certain level of claustrophobia where the story is only relevant to the three people in question," Birns said. "So it was important to me to create a broader context and to show these people's stories are just microcosmic examples of something that is refracted in our society in much larger ways. I needed to find balance of this intimate and personal story with the broader, sociological implications."
Birns took a year to research surrogate births before he began working the film, and he continued to do research during production.
"What was surprising to me was finding how little regulation there is," he said. "There are completely different rules state by state, country by country. As a result of that, we see people bending the rules by hopping between states or making international agreements. And that shows how uncertain we are as a society and global community in how to deal with this transaction."
Since there isn't a standard, Birns had a certain license to create his own scenarios of what might happen during a surrogate birth.
To pull these scene off, he relied on his cast.
"The process of casting was interesting because I was committed to the notion that Genevieve, the surrogate, would feel as if she was from another [culture]," he said. "Her being a foreigner. Her living outside of the city in isolation, all of those things together were intended to create and experience of her otherness."
Julie Sokolowski was perfect for the role.
"She has acted only once before in Bruno Dumont's film 'Hadewijch' in 2009, and has no formal training as an actor," Birns said. "So she was very raw in her style."
The filmmaker credits casting director, Jessica Kelly, to find the other actors — Kerry Condon and Dominic Fumusa.
"There was this wonderful juxtaposition between the rawness of the surrogate and this New York City theater professionals who have a much different feel of their performance," he said. "And that adds to the dynamics of the story."
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