Sundance 2021: Seeds of Deceit
2 February 2021
Miriam Guttmann has been the toast of Sundance this week. Her three-part documentary series Seeds of Deceit (sold by Dogwoof), has been screening at the festival to admiring reviews. The series is produced by De Familie Film & TV in co-production with Dutch broadcaster VPRO.
The film tells an extraordinary story. Its subject is the now notorious Dr Jan Karbaat, a fertility doctor who secretly used his own semen on at least 67 of his patients - and probably more. Karbaat, who died in 2017, has left dozens and dozens of children behind.
Seeds of Deceit uses talking head interviews, re-enactments and archive footage in dynamic fashion.
"I strongly feel that documentary, just like fiction, should really captivate the viewer and pull someone into the story," Guttmann explains why she was determined to ensure her film was fast moving. "I imagined how I would have directed it if had been fiction and put a lot of those fictional elements into the story. "I really tried to make it as vivid as possible."
Guttmann had the idea for a film on Karbaat when she read a short and sensationalist article in a Dutch newspaper. She attended one of the court cases which took place just weeks after Karbaat's sudden death. By then, there were 19 children who realised they had the same DNA, although they hadn't yet discovered that the doctor was their father.
The first step was to make a 22-minute short film, also called Seeds Of Deceit, which she directed as her graduation film at the Netherlands Film Academy in 2018. By then, she had already done extensive research, meeting many of the mothers and their children. "I knew there were more plot lines and perspectives I wanted to dive deeper into."
That research expanded yet further with the series. Guttmann says she worked day and night on the project for four years.
Many of Karbaat's victims felt anger and confusion. "At the beginning it was so raw...and it still is. Their lives changed 180 degrees," says the director. They were already adults when they discovered they had been fathered by Karbaat. Inevitably, that prompted painful conversations with their mothers about their true identities.
Ask the director what she now feels about Karbaat, whether she pities or despises him, and she gives a measured answer. "I am very curious still. He really intrigued me for the last four years and he still does...I think he was really a complex figure," Guttmann reflects.
The zeitgeist has changed dramatically since the 1970s and 80s, when the doctor was lauded for helping women conceive and few thought to question behaviour which seems monstrous by contemporary standards. From today's vantage point, the doctor embodies precisely what the #MeToo movement was created to stop. He was a powerful man who abused women.
"It is too easy to say I despise this guy. He did really immoral things, unethical things...that's all horrible." However, Karbaat's children are, she continues, "all amazing people. There must be some good character traits from that line. So he's a complex figure and I still don't know exactly what I think about him."
At his clinic, which was more like a country house than a hospital, Karbaat had put a statue of a stork on the roof. (The bird, of course, delivers babies in old folk tales and Disney movies). Guttmann was determined to include it in the film. "It was such an iconic image...I really, really wanted to do something with that."
Now, the director is waiting to find out what the Dutch response to the film will be when it is shown in the Netherlands later in the spring. She expects that younger spectators will be shocked but that they will also be curious about an era when doctors were "put on a pedestal" while no-one paid any attention to the well-being of the children.
"It is amazing that Sundance recognised this series and what I really hoped to make was something everybody could relate to. It's a very absurd and shocking story but it is also about identity, upbringing, nature vs nurture, parenting, being a child and what makes family..." the director says of the International recognition the film has already achieved.
Seeds of Deceit by Miriam Guttmann
No less than three (co)productions from the Netherlands have been selected for Sundance 2021. Documentary series Seeds of Deceit , feature Pleasure by Ninja Thyberg and short film Five Tiger by Nomawonga Khumalo, will screen in various sections of the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. The Sundance Film Festival takes place January 28 - February 3, 2020
(Seeds of Deceit has been supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and Film Incentive)
For further reading:
15-12-2020: Dutch (Co)Productions At Sundance 2021
For more information:
Sundance Film Festival: festival.sundance.org
Seeds of Deceit
Sales: DOGWOOF ltd
Ph: +44 (0) 20 7253 6244
Production company: De Familie Film & TV