Top of the Heap: Elly Teman

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For this installment of the Top of the Heap series, I spoke with Elly Teman, a medical anthropologist specializing in the anthropology of reproduction and a senior lecturer in the Department of Behavioural Science at Ruppin Academic Center in Israel.

Elly Teman

The top of my heap this past summer has been stacked with a list of documentary films on topics related to the anthropology of reproduction while preparing syllabi for the coming year. I find that students engage much closer through film than through reading only, and that incorporating films in my courses makes for lively discussion. Thus, I am constantly on the lookout for new films to add to my collection. Most of the films I use are available on YouTube, Vimeo, or the director’s website, so I ask the students to watch the film on their own the week before a specific class. They submit a paragraph the night before class about their reaction to the film and its connection to class readings, or in response to a question I pose regarding the film. In class we discuss the film together with the lecture and readings for that day; this gives them a lot of vivid examples to illustrate theoretical concepts and to make cross-cultural comparisons.

Some of the films below are ones I have not yet seen or have not yet been able to obtain a copy of. Others are “musts” on my list for any course on the anthropology of reproduction or for a section on reproduction for a medical anthropology course. I am listing them according to some of the topics I like to cover in my class.

The Politics of Reproduction – Romania and China

I like to get students thinking about this topic through films that illuminate very obviously the way that the body politic exerts control over individual women’s bodies and populations. I like to use the examples of Ceauşescu’s Romania and of China’s one-child policy and then give readings about Israel so that we can compare and look at the way social institutions play different roles as arms of the state. Some films at the top of my list about Romania are Children of the Decree (2005) about Ceauşescu’s Decree 770 in 1966 forbidding contraception and most abortions in Romania, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) about a woman who helps her friend get an illegal abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania, and Edet Belzberg’s 2001 Children Underground about the abandoned, homeless street children that resulted from the decree. These films would work well with readings from Gail Kligman’s work.

For China, my list includes Small Happiness: Women of a Chinese Village (1984) and some of the documentaries about the abandoned girls resulting from China’s one-child policy, including The Dying Rooms (1995) about orphanages where baby girls are left to die, China’s Stolen Children (2007) about the situation ten years after the aforementioned film, China’s Lost Girls (2005), and Evan Grae Davis’s documentary It’s a Girl (2012) about female infanticide in India and China. The director also has a TED talk that I have bookmarked.

It is often worthwhile when discussing these films to bring these issues closer to home and to get students thinking comparatively about the limits on women’s reproductive freedom in one’s own country. For Israel, there are so many televised Hebrew-language documentary films that are very well done, but I won’t write about them here because they have not been translated. It is a pity, because these are very powerful films about the emotional costs of IVF, parents procuring sperm of their dead son to create grandchildren, Israeli surrogacy and surrogacy-related travel, prenatal testing and the quest for the “perfect baby”, and more. One popular film that has translation is Amos Gitai’s Kadosh about infertility among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious sector.

For U.S. courses, I would recommend the Demi Moore segment of the original If These Walls Could Talk about a woman seeking an illegal abortion in the US in the 1950s (1996). Other films on my “body politic” heap are documentaries including Gabriela Quiros’s (2014) film Beautiful Sin about infertile couples struggling against the ban on IVF in Costa Rica (this could be paired with readings from the work of Elizabeth Roberts on IVF in Ecuador), Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater’s 2006 documentary Rosita about the struggle against the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican governments to obtain an abortion for a 9-year-old girl who became pregnant as the result of a rape, and the 2005 documentary by Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner I Had an Abortion.

Forced Sterilization

I have also been following this opening on the politics of reproduction with the subject of forced sterilization using the 1993 film The Lynchburg Story about forced eugenic sterilization of the so-called “feeble minded” in the United States between 1927-72, but there is a long list of films on my heap on this subject. These include La Operación (1982) about the mass sterilization of Puerto Rican women during the 1950s and 1960s and No More Babies For Life (2012) about the sterilization of Mexican-origin women at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and 1970s. My list is also heavy with documentary films about forced sterilization of indigenous women in Peru, including A Woman’s Womb: The politics of Reproduction (2011), Scars of Deception (2014), and the older 1970s Bolivian film Blood of the Condor.

Menstruation and Menopause

Another topic on which I have been collecting a heap of films to see is menstruation. My favorite part of teaching the anthropology of reproduction is teaching Emily Martin’s book The Woman in the Body especially the chapter “Metaphors of Menstruation and Menopause”. It helps to have films to get the students thinking about menstruation through an anthropological lens. Usually I use the Tampax Pearl commercials, in which a middle-aged “mother nature” chases young and carefree ladies with her “annoying gift”, and we analyze these commercials through Martin’s framework of the body as a metaphor of failed capitalist production. However, there are several films I am looking forward to checking out in order to use them for this topic: Diana Fabianova’s 2009 film, The Moon Inside You looking at why the topic of menstruation is taboo (as well as the director’s TED talk), Giovanna Chesler’s 2006 Period: The End of Menstruation? about menstrual suppression and its cultural and medical side effects, and Jay Rosenblatts’ 1996 Period Piece. I also want to see Amit Virmani’s 2013 Menstrual Man about one man’s campaign against the cultural taboos surrounding menstruation and women’s limited access to sanitary pads in India, Vanessa Meyer’s 2010 short film Cup U about the menstrual cup, and the soon to be released Period Stories (2016).

And what is menstruation without menopause? This heap also includes the documentary Hot Flash Havoc (2012), The M Word (2014), The Menopause and Me (2015), Face it! (Ingeborg Beugel, The Netherlands, 2014), and Menopause: the Musical (there are some versions on youtube).

Medicalization of Childbirth

One film that I use in every medical anthropology course is Abby Epstein and Riki Lake’s 2008 The Business of Being Born. I haven’t yet found any film comparable in its impact on students. I have tried using the shorter classroom edition, but it doesn’t do the trick because it does not have the full portrayal of the home births that they capture in the full-length film. This film is perfect for teaching together with readings on the medicalization of childbirth, especially the work of Robbie Davis-Floyd. Still, there are a lot of films on my “to-see” list that might supplement this film or could be used to discuss hospital birth and homebirth, particularly the film Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives (2012) about the legendary midwife, Ina May Gaskin’s TED Talk, and the documentary Freedom for Birth about the imprisoned Hugarian obstetrician-midwife Agnes Gereb (2012). Also Orgasmic Birth (2009), Pregnant in America: A Nation’s Miscarriage (2008), Born in the USA (2000), Birth As We Know It (2006), and the sequel to The Business of Being Born.

I know that my students all watch the Israeli version of the reality show A Baby Story so I am also hoping for the time to check out some of the reality TV shows about pregnancy and birth such as Pregnant in Heels, I’m Pregnant And…, Secretly Pregnant, MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, etc., which could be great for an assignment in an anthropology of reproduction class.

New Reproductive Technologies

Since my own research is on surrogacy, I like to show Zippi Brand Frank’s 2009 HBO documentary Google Baby about gestational surrogacy in India as it clearly maps out the movement across national borders, social classes, and bodies involved in transnational surrogacy arrangements. My “to-see” heap includes Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha’s 2011 documentary Made in India, about an American couple and their Indian surrogate, and Surabhi Sharma’s 2012 documentary, commissioned by the Sama Resource Group for Women and Health in New Delhi, Can We See the Baby Bump Please? about the Indian surrogacy industry. There are also several films on surrogacy in the United States that I am hoping to get a chance to see, including The Center for Bioethics and Culture’s Breeders: A Subclass of Women (2014) and Gillian Goslinga’s ethnographic film The Child the Stork Brought Home (1997). Any of these could work well with the new ethnographic work coming out on surrogacy in India.

There are also some interesting films about egg donation and donor children. I especially want to see the recent films on egg freezing including Marieke Schellart’s Eggs for Later (Netherlands 2011) and Amanda Burell’s Motherhood on Ice (2014), as well as Jennifer Lahl’s Eggsploitation (2010, 2013) about the egg donation industry. Jerry Rothwell’s film Donor Unknown (PBS Independent Lens 2011) about teenagers who meet one another through the Donor Sibling Registry and search for their sperm donor is thought-provoking, haunting, and makes for heated debate in class. My heap of “to-see” docs on this subject also includes Deirdre Fishels’ Sperm Donor X: A Different Conception (2010) about women who used donor sperm to conceive, the documentary Sperm Donor (Style Network 2011) about a donor coming to terms with telling his fiancé about his many offspring, Jennifer Lahl’s 2011 Anonymous Father’s Day, and the MTV six-part 2013 documentary Generation Cryo about a teenager meeting her 15 half-siblings through the DSR. Any of these might go well with readings from any of the sociological and anthropological work on eggs and sperm, commodification, and globalization there is out there now, such as work by Rene Almeling, Marcia Inhorn, Charis Thompson, and Lisa Jean Moore.

Finally, I like to finish my course with a lecture on reproductive justice in order to tie the anthropological insights in with a reproductive justice framework. I highly recommend Linda Layne’s “Combating the Criminalization of Stillbirth and Miscarriage: A Conversation with Lynn Paltrow, J.D., Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women” which is part of Layne’s invaluable educational television series Motherhood Lost: Conversations.


Elly Teman is a medical anthropologist specializing in the anthropology of reproduction. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Behavioral Science at Ruppin Academic Center in Israel. She has been a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and at the University of Pennsylvania. Her primary research is on surrogate motherhood in Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jewish women’s experiences of pregnancy and prenatal testing, religious conversion in prison, life stories, and Jewish folklore. Her ethnography of gestational surrogacy arrangements, Birthing a Mother: the Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self, was published by the University of California Press in 2010.  Birthing a Mother received the Eileen Basker Memorial Prize (Society for Medical Anthropology), the Stirling Book Prize (Society for Psychological Anthropology), the Diana Forsythe Prize (Awarded by the Society for the Anthropology of Work and the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing), and was a finalist for the Foundation of the Sociology of Health and Illness Book Prize (British Sociological Association). Elly is a member of CAR, the Council on Anthropology of Reproduction, and she thanks members of the CAR listserv and of the ReproNetwork Listserv for sharing such great documentary film suggestions over the years.


Image: The Cinema Museum, London

4 replies on “Top of the Heap: Elly Teman”

This is a really exceptionally helpful post – thank you. I teach a course in Sociology at University of York (UK) called Birth, Marriage, Death which explores the social legal and cultural construction of these ‘personal’ and ‘intimate’ experiences. These recommendations are great and I’m sure some of them will make their way into my course next academic year.

Great comment Elly. Wonderful list of films and I look forward to teaching some new films in my classes, Sex and Society and Intro to Medical Anthropology. keep up the great work…

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