While many companies were affected by shortages brought on by COVID-19’s disruption, some may not be top of mind when it comes to everyday commerce. Enter filmmaker Lance Oppenheim, whose latest work Spermworld depicts the evolution of sperm banks. There’s been high interest from potential parents for receiving the male sperm, and the limited regulations of in-person sperm banks (e.g. donors can’t give their sperm to more than 25 or 30 families) have made donors run their business online. After contributing to the New York Times article The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand, Oppenheim has now crafted a mind-boggling moving-image companion piece with backing from the outlet.

The documentary profiles a trio of primary leads: mechanic Tyree, Lyft driver Steve, and arithmetic professor Ari “the Sperminator” Nagel as they form different types of relationships and family trees during their exchanges. Steve hopes to make things romantic with his recipient Rachel; Ari tries his best to be present to his 100+ kids and fulfill family obligations; and Tyree wants to have a baby with his partner, Atasha, through natural insemination while he donates to other women through artificial means. Service is a vessel for these sperm donors beyond the primary subject of the film. Whether it’s fixing a car, getting to their destination, or earning a degree, we see people involved in our participants’ work as a necessity for their social advancement. When it comes to sperm-donation and all that is involved, we see the dichotomy between these private and public acts of service. Their clients have a more challenging time connecting their assistance in the underground market as a role model, contrasting with their civic duty. 

Spermworld is another addition to Oppenheim’s altruistic cinema. He showed the possibilities of happiness in sectors such as the world’s largest retirement community with his debut feature Some Kind of Heaven (2020), airline employees finding freedom in his short Long Term Parking (2016), and an NFL free agent in The Off | Season (2015). He continues to shoot in a vérité style here, emphasizing the interiority of the donors, beneficiaries, and their family members. Many of the loved ones respect the donors’ decisions, to varying degrees. He also includes microscopic footage of sperm and eggs, as well as screenshots of a sperm-donor online group to accentuate the digitization and science of this interconnected universe. Along with Daniel Garber’s editorial arsenal, they emphasize the droll nature of the protagonists’ work and their maneuvering around “polite society.” For example, Steve can’t fully comprehend Rachel’s bisexuality, showcasing a narrowed understanding of her wants and needs, a trait in which Oppenheim finds some irony: during one of their many movie nights together, Steve describes David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. as  “great,” cutting to them watching Naomi Watts and Laura Harring’s sex scene. We also see Ari giving his students an equation involving the amount of money compensated from child support and a post that affirms their existence as they “rebuild America’s workforce.” 

Spermworld’s most polarizing aspect is contemplating how these children will be raised. Oppenheim explores the idea of fatherhood affecting the men when they perform activities for their loved ones, both for the children they’ve fathered and the women who have accepted their donations (as witnessed in a bonkers birthday party scene that I won’t spoil). Still, we don’t necessarily come to understand how the youth perceive their parents’ lifestyles. How will they emotionally mature when their dads go off to another sperm recipient? How will their co-parent explain this? The rushed formations of the new families do not have a convenient solution for this dilemma. During the last screening of Spermworld at this year’s True/False Film Festival, a patron asked Oppenheim about displaying the positivity of the subculture. Oppenheim replied that he was recently asked about showing the guys’ negative attributes. Whatever you take out of this Rorschach test, Oppenheim’s lens elucidates the organic nature of relationships and how no one can force life. Time is your friend to fully experience the process. 

Spermworld premiered at True/False Film Festival 2024 and will air on FX on March 29.

Grade: B

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