The Strange Intimacy of Unregulated Sperm Donations

Lance Oppenheim, the Florida native and filmmaker behind Spermworld, has a a knack for access and a distinctive visual sensibility. Since being named in Filmmaker magazine’s list of “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2019 at the age of 23, he’s made two feature documentaries (a three-part docuseries, Ren Faire, premieres this summer) that exhibit an assured and curious perspective unusual for contemporary nonfiction filmmakers.

Spermworld, like Some Kind of Heaven before it, is structured around the lives of three individuals who share a community. In this film, that community is the unregulated online hubs of sperm donations first profiled in the New York Times article “The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand.” Oppenheim builds on his previous film’s hyper-stylized aesthetic with a gauzy sheen the filmmaker said was influenced by the opaque, viscous liquid his subjects are often seen handing over to strangers in empty parking lots, motel rooms, or in the middle of a child’s birthday party.

Oppenheim homes in on niche subcultures that could promise spectacle over substance, but instead he deconstructs them to reveal how they reflect universal experiences.

Spermworld burrows into its subjects (Tyree, Steve, and Ari), achieving an intimacy and vulnerability that is both sympathetic and unnerving. Each of the men claims to donate, at least in part, out of a longing to help others, but it doesn’t take long to uncover motivations that extend beyond goodwill. For all three, donating sperm feels like a means to an end — an attempt to outrun their unique voids of loneliness and desire, the details of which Oppenheim gently distributes across the film.

The level of tension that’s natural for the types of online-coordinated stranger-to-stranger interactions we see throughout the film can be uncomfortable to watch. When a young woman enters Steve’s home and immediately remarks that the elder divorcée doesn’t have any furniture in his living room, Spermworld briefly feels like it’s entering horror film territory.

The potential for danger that’s inherent in these types of unregulated, risky, and very consequential interactions is what makes Spermworld a particularly fascinating text in 2024. The meet-ups and exchanges Oppenheim captures run wildly counter to how we’ve increasingly structured life, particularly since COVID-19, to circumvent in-person interactions, whether that means talking to neighbors via WhatsApp group chats or buying fast-casual robot-made burgers out of lockers. Yet this film witnesses many people willing to forego the safety of a sperm clinic to meet strangers in abandoned parking lots or rural homes at the drop of a text or Facebook message.

Are these gambits positive or irresponsible? One of Spermworld’s strengths is its refusal to judge. Rather than positing a digestible thesis or argument, the film revolves around more difficult and open questions: Why do these men feel compelled to donate their sperm? What does participating in this world offer them? Oppenheim doesn’t attempt to give us concrete answers about this community. Instead, he gives us access to a world unfamiliar to many but perhaps relatable in the face of so much contemporary isolation and desire.

Spermworld is currently streaming on Hulu.

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