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The Surrogate’s Jeremy Hersh: ‘No one in the film is right or wrong’

After decades of fighting just to have a voice, queer filmmakers are now able to ask provocative questions of their own community. The Surrogate’s writer/director Jeremy Hersh examines what that meant for him.

In 2013, I was lucky enough to be invited to several big queer film festivals to screen my first short film. It was an interesting moment in the decades-long history of these festivals. They’d been established with a straightforward, important mission: to create a space where queer films could be seen, at a time when there was virtually no place to find them.

Now that queer films are easy to access, it’s an incredibly exciting moment – queer filmmakers, liberated of trying to appeal to a cis-het audience, can ask our own communities questions about the ways in which we might do better.

I started trying my best to develop a movie that would hold a mirror up to this audience – which was predominantly white, male, and fairly homogenous in terms of class – and provoke thought.

I knew I would have to hold up a mirror to myself, to put myself in genuinely uncomfortable territory.

I wanted to write about gay men who self-identify as feminists, whose belief that they inherently “get women” stops them from doing the listening that would lead to actually “getting” someone on a deep level; gay men in the habit of putting a woman on a pedestal – a pedestal that quickly becomes confining to said woman.

I’ve definitely been guilty of this type of thinking in the past. I was newly graduated from university, and when I would envision my future, it usually involved having a child through surrogacy. When I started researching the topic, I quickly realised my image of surrogacy was idealised, sanitised and unrealistic.

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And I became aware of a number of bills, being passed in various US states, which sought to make it a crime for a doctor to perform a termination if they know the pregnant person is seeking it specifically because the foetus may have Down syndrome.

One of these bills is called the ‘no eugenics’ bill, but that’s misleading; these bills are a strategic way to try to chip away at Roe vs Wade and further limit access to abortion in the US.

Nonetheless, here, two beliefs I hold strongly – that all barriers to abortion access should be removed, and that all people with disabilities are equally as valuable to society as people without disabilities – were seemingly at odds. Here was yet another example of people in power trying to pit two marginalised groups against each other.

This was the seed for the script to my film The Surrogate, which is about a woman who’s just become a surrogate (and egg donor) for her close friends, a male couple.

The film follows the conflicting reactions they have when, 12 weeks into the pregnancy, the foetus tests positive for Down syndrome. The surrogate, Jess, and one of the fathers, Aaron, are black, and the other father, Josh, is a descendant of Eastern European Jews who died in or survived the Holocaust. They all belong to groups that have historically been victims of eugenics.

In the film, Jess is on a mission to hold a mirror up to her friends, to make them answer for what she comes to see as a failure to put into practice the progressive politics they profess. Jess’s tragic flaw is a tendency for idealism that sometimes avoids facing up to reality.

Josh is in many ways a representation of who I’m afraid of becoming and in a way Jess is a representation of who I’ve been in the past, when I had an extremely idealised vision of what surrogacy might look like – her journey in the film mirrors the journey I underwent in the research process.

I was recently interviewed over Zoom and implied that I think Jess is “right” in the film, and I found myself cringing afterwards. Having never been in their situation, I can’t claim I wouldn’t make the same decisions the male characters make in the film. No one in the film is right or wrong. Whatever your opinions are when you walk in, I hope the film makes you question them a little bit.

The Surrogate is in select cinemas from July 9

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