Miriam Guttmann • Director of Seeds of Deceit
“Jan Karbaat was a man with multiple faces”
by Marta Bałaga
- We talked to the director of the Sundance-screened, three-episode series about the infamous Jan Karbaat case and his many, many descendants
In Miriam Guttmann’s Dutch series Seeds of Deceit, showing at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, once again, all eyes are on the late Dutch fertility doctor Jan Karbaat, who used his own sperm to inseminate his patients – needless to say, without their consent. But his “children”, surrounded by scores of their half-siblings, still try to create a community instead of focusing on their father's problematic legacy.
Cineuropa: It’s difficult to believe what one hears when watching the series – your jaw just drops. Is that why you opted for extra time via this format? It would be overwhelming to deal with it all in one feature.
Miriam Guttmann: That was one of the reasons, but I also wanted to show different perspectives: the parents who really wanted a child; the children, happy to have all these siblings yet scared of their “evil genes”; and the donors who have this urge to procreate. Jan Karbaat passed away a month before his court case, in 2017. I wasn't able to interview him, and whenever I would pitch the story, people's first question was: “Why would he do it?” I didn't know, and I could only guess. But that's why I found it so interesting to interview his favourite donors. You do get some insight into their psyche and their motivation.
There is something very troubling about their stories, about how they used women. But also about the ways in which some patients describe their encounters with Karbaat, so helpless or even sexually harassed.
The mothers were vulnerable, and he exploited that, and they didn't even dare to share these experiences with their partners. I have been working on it for four years, and I was shocked. It's another #MeToo story, another man who abused his power. They didn't have many options – he was really THE fertility doctor, a pioneer who was progressive and open-minded. He helped gay couples and single mothers. When other doctors would say that there was no sperm at that moment, he would always have enough supply. That made them so dependent on him.
Compared to when this story first broke, do they find it easier to talk to you now?
Looking back, I think I was a bit naive – I didn't realise what kind of burden I would be carrying around for the next four years. I talked to these kids and their parents more than I would to my own family. As a documentary filmmaker, you need to be there around the clock. You can't just step into somebody's life and expect them to trust you. Also, they are not just Karbaat's children or his patients: they are full characters with their own problems, just like anybody else. I wanted them to know that I would do their story justice, that I wouldn't portray them in a sensationalistic way. If you were to look at my WhatsApp and call history, you would see that I was really a part of this group.
It’s possible to imagine them being viewed as “freaks” of some kind, so to see their encounters being so joyful is genuinely moving. It's as if they made a collective decision to make something good out of this whole ordeal.
I also find it so beautiful. I realised how important it was for me to always see myself in my parents – it makes you feel grounded. They have conflicting feelings, experiencing the sense of belonging and recognition, and then the fear of inheriting some family traits. Some are loyal to the legal fathers who raised them, while others embrace Karbaat. That being said, I was intrigued by how much is decided by nature. We are talking about people who didn't know each other, full grown-ups, and still they have so much in common.
It's almost scary. Some of them also seem to have this need to believe that deep down, Karbaat was a good guy.
It's a conviction that many of them carry. He was a man with multiple faces: he did help people, and could be charming and understanding. Karbaat wasn't just this crazy narcissist you would picture based on this story; he was a father for some of his legal children. He was also a businessman driven by profit, inseminating his patients with water so that they would come back for another treatment. I think it's important for them to believe in his good intentions – it would be hard to think that your biological father was evil. I tried to reach out to his legal family, too – I literally stood there with flowers and letters. But they didn't want to participate.
His own father used to dilute milk with water, also for profit. How many of these details have you discovered through this process?
I knew there were many possible plot lines, that his patients were sexually abused, but this story just kept unfolding. The short film I made [in 2018] was very dark, but now, because I had more time, I could show all of these layers. When two children found out that their brothers were half-brothers, too, but from another donor, that literally happened a week before shooting. I would go to bed, and then the next morning, there would be another Karbaat child, added to the group. There are over 70 of them now. It's all so absurd.
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