Doc Star of the Month: Nicole Williamson, 'Made in Boise'
"Loves being pregnant" is not usually a statement found on one’s bio, but it’s certainly relevant information when it comes to Nicole Williamson. The president and CEO of A Host of Possibilities, Idaho's largest surrogacy agency (located in Boise, the "unofficial surrogacy capital" of the US), Williamson is also one of the breakout stars of award-winning filmmaker Beth Aala's surprisingly uplifting Made in Boise.
Aala's doc follows four gestational surrogates, including this indefatigable businesswoman, who smoothly runs her agency alongside her husband while also raising their two young kids—all while carrying her fourth surrogate baby. Even more impressive, though, is that rather than slowing her down, the unconventional pregnancy seems to energize her—and, in turn, the film itself.
Which is why Documentary is delighted that Williamson found time in her 24/7 schedule to be featured as our October "Doc Star of the Month."
DOCUMENTARY: Gestational surrogacy has long been controversial. Indeed, it's illegal in many countries and even in quite a few US states, including New York. So why open up yourself—and your agency, A Host of Possibilities—to a film crew? Who or what convinced you to take that risk?
NICOLE WILLIAMSON: Michigan and New York are the last two states in the US that specifically have a law against compensated surrogacy. New York brought surrogacy legislation up during their last session, but they ran out of time to finish debate and to finalize a draft before the end of their session. Hopefully it will be brought back to the legislature during the next session, and that they’ll pass a law that allows for compensated surrogacy.
When Beth and I initially met, we were just casually talking about surrogacy and I was sharing my stories with her. After a while she asked if she could record the information I was giving her and start filming right there. I am a very open person and have no problem sharing my life or my experiences—especially if it's regarding a cause I am passionate about. When I met with Beth she explained to me that she wanted the documentary to show the humanistic side of surrogacy, and to explain surrogacy from the perspective of a surrogate.
It really didn't take much to convince me to be part of this documentary, and I don't feel like I took a risk. Beth and I got along really well, almost immediately, and I trusted her from the moment I met her at my office. I really felt it was important to show people the positive impacts that happen from surrogacy, and I trusted Beth would be the best person to help get that message out there.
In the past, every time I would hear a story in the media about surrogacy it always had negative connotations. I would ask, "Where are the amazing stories showing parents holding their babies for the first time, and the surrogate smiling and crying, knowing she'd just helped them fill their hearts?" I hear so many sad stories from women who have tried to have a family of their own, only to end up with loss and heartache, feeling hopeless and still just wanting to have a baby. As a mother, I could not imagine not being able to have a baby of my own and watch them grow, and feel that never-ending love for another human being.
D: The doc paints quite an uplifting portrait—though surrogacy itself is not without risks. Women can suffer complications (as they do with any pregnancy or form of childbirth). Intended parents are granted a certain amount of power over a surrogate’s body—and can even request to terminate her pregnancy. Which made me wonder if, had any of these events occurred during production, you would have been agreeable to Beth and her team including it in the film?
NW: Of course I would have—and we did. This included the story of Cindy Floyd’s complications. She was put on bedrest and admitted to the hospital. Even though the relationship she formed with her intending father was amazing, her having to be put on bedrest took a huge emotional toll on her. Not everything was disclosed in the film, but Cindy had a foster child at that time and had to stop fostering that child, due to her pregnancy complications and her bedrest. I think the film covered the emotional toll it had on not only Cindy, but her family as well—especially with her son's interview, in which he expresses how concerned he was about his mother being a surrogate.
In Chelsea's story, we learn about her previous attempt at being a surrogate and carrying conjoined twins (that ultimately never reached term). And her husband's concern about her being a surrogate again due to complications from the D&C Chelsea had to have done. The film also touched on the blood clots that she developed from her surrogacy.
It is nice to hear that the overall feeling of the film is positive and uplifting, but that wasn't due to us or any of Beth's team being selective with regards to what to show or not show, or shaping the narrative. They just followed the journeys of each surrogate in the film—and some of those included very real complications and concerns that can and do come up with any pregnancy.
D: Throughout the film we see you not only running your agency and raising your two kids with your husband, but also visibly pregnant with your fourth surrogacy. So where did you draw the line when it came to privacy? What was off-limits to the camera?
NW: My husband and I, as well as our family, are very open and comfortable sharing with people, especially if it concerns something in which we think we can have a positive impact. So for us, we really didn’t have anything that was "off-limits."
Although the footage didn’t make the final cut of the film, the filmmaking team were right there getting candid shots of my best friend and I taking my daughter to the Women's March in DC. Since my days could be very hectic at that time, my nightly routine was to take a bubblebath and play my Candy Crush game, have some quiet alone time and relax. Sometimes my daughter would take a bath with me, and there is footage of my bath time as well. We wanted the final product to be a very real, honest telling of a surrogate’s story, and the only way we knew how to do that was to be completely open and honest with our story.
D: On the one hand, your surrogacy agency gets the majority of its business from the international LGBTQ community. On the other hand, you're located in conservative Boise —and you draw surrogates from the city’s large Catholic and Mormon ranks. So what happens if a surrogate, citing religious beliefs, voices a refusal to carry for a same-sex couple? Is this sort of discrimination allowed?
NW: I don’t consider it discrimination, per se. We try to match surrogates with intending parents that they share things in common with. Sometimes that can be hobbies they like to do in their spare time, the types of music and movies they like, or what their religious beliefs happen to be. When intending parents and surrogates first touch base with my agency, they fill out a questionnaire for their profile and within that are questions about their stance on various issues within the surrogacy process.
If we have a surrogate who does not want to carry for a same-sex couple, due to religious reasons or any other personal choice, they put that down on their questionnaire and we only show their profile to traditional couples. Although we do have surrogates from time to time that do make choices like that, I would say the vast majority are just as willing to carry for same-sex couples as they would for traditional couples. At the end of the day, they just want to help people achieve something that, without their help, would not be possible.
D: With the PBS airdate close at hand, what do you most hope audiences will take away from the film?
NW: Surrogacy today is so misunderstood, and there is still a negative stigma in a lot of people's minds about it. A lot of feminist activists who are against surrogacy rail against it claiming that it exploits women—specifically poor, uneducated women, typically in rural communities. Like any industry in the world, if there is a way to exploit someone to make a profit, there will always be people who will try.
But our experiences in the surrogacy world have been the exact opposite. I want this film to allow people to see the human connections that are made, and the very real struggles that intending parents deal with just to get to the point of needing a surrogate, as well as throughout the surrogacy journey itself. I hope that the film ultimately helps move the conversation about surrogacy forward, and helps to educate the public on just how beautiful and life-changing it can be for everyone involved.
Made in Boise, an IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee, airs October 28 on Independent Lens.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.