‘You shouldn’t be able to return a baby like a t-shirt,’ says Emmy Award winner Zippi Brand Frank, whose film documents Indian surrogate mothers.
Zippi Brand Frank’s pregnant belly stuck out as prominently as the golden Emmy Award in her hand at New York’s Lincoln Center on September 26. The image was particularly loaded, since the 41-year-old Israeli producer-director won the prize for Google Baby, a look at the thriving surrogate-mother industry in India.
Frank’s documentary focused on a clinic in rural Anand where peasant women give birth to babies ordered over the Internet through an Israeli “pregnancy producer.” Western hetero and gay prospective parents click on the sperm and eggs of their choice, enter credit card details, and later travel to Anand to receive the newborn they couldn’t or wouldn’t conceive themselves.
“Now you can order a baby and get it nine months later, like ordering jeans from Gap,” says Frank, who was born in Tel Aviv and lives there with her husband and two girls, ages three and five. “Except children are not like jeans.”
Though Frank, whose third child is due in November, doesn’t condemn the practice entirely, she tells ISRAEL21c that she hopes her film sparks regulations to avoid exploitation of the surrogate mothers and babies as the lucrative human reproduction industry steams ahead with no legal barriers in its way.
The pregnancy producer told Frank that he sees no need to screen clients. “He feels that if nature didn’t put any barriers to having children, why should he? But I think he should,” says Frank.
During her research, she learned of a couple who divorced before their child was born and refused to pick her up in India, sparking a three-month court case.
“This is unacceptable to me,” says Frank, a former TV political reporter, investigative journalist and anchor news producer. “The [ordering parents] must be required to pick up the baby no matter what happens. You shouldn’t be able to return a baby like a t-shirt.”
The surrogate mothers often give birth via Cesarean section because it yields a better-looking newborn. This, too, raises ethical questions.
“It wasn’t easy for me to watch [the births],” Frank says, although she believes these rural women “are really well prepared to do their job and move on.” The fees they earn spell the difference between living in the street or having a roof over their families’ heads. “They seemed very feminist and very brave.”
Wants to raise her children in Israel
One might say the same of Frank herself. Coming from a family where current events were discussed around the dinner table, particular her mother’s involvement with civil rights, Frank was active in the Israel Scouts and served as an officer in the army’s intelligence corps.
She completed a year at the Sorbonne University in Paris and earned an undergraduate degree in law and journalism from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem prior to her broadcast career.
“I was at Channel 2 since it was established in 1993,” she relates. By the time she left in 2001, she was doing longer and longer pieces out of a desire to provide more depth, and that inclination naturally led to documentary-making.
Her first work, She’s in the Army Now, examined Israeli women in the military. Two years later came Somebody to Love, which followed romance-searching singles against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The eight-part Wakeup Call (2005) provided a close-up look at the lives of exceptionally motivated people.
In 2004, Frank married a former Israeli fighter pilot working in the United States. After she completed a Neiman Fellowship in journalism at Harvard University, the couple came back to Israel.
“My husband had a position at AT&T, which bought part of his company, and we could have stayed there a lifetime,” she says, “but we decided we were ready to return. We’re more comfortable here in Israel, and it’s the right place to raise our kids.” She says she is inspired by the example of her maternal grandmother, who came to Israel as a widow from Libya and raised seven children.
However, Israel isn’t the easiest milieu for independent filmmakers. “There aren’t many outlets or budgets, which I didn’t realize when I started,” she admits. To save money on Google Baby, she did all post-production work herself.
The film, executive produced by Sheila Nevins and Yona Wiesenthal, made its debut in Israel in 2009. It was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 and won first prize at DocAviv, the annual Tel Aviv documentary film festival, as well as the Magnolia Golden Award in Shanghai for best documentary. Then it was purchased by the American cable network HBO, the network that represented it at the Emmys.
Frank’s two current projects examine mega-wealthy clients paying big bucks to purchase anti-aging treatments at clinics in South Korea, China and Ukraine using leftover frozen embryos. The other is an Israeli TV series about “extreme parenthood,” documenting people who go to unusual lengths to have children.