Shaun Munro reviews the Sundance premiere of Dutch documentary series Seeds of Deceit…
Miriam Guttmann’s three-part documentary series premiering at Sundance could so easily have lent its inherently scandalous subject matter a trashy, tabloid-y treatment, yet Guttman opts instead for robust restraint, foregrounding the stories of abuse victims over the mythology of their abuser.
Jan Karbaat was, for a time, the foremost fertility doctor in the Netherlands, renowned for helping single women and lesbian couples fall pregnant through artificial semination long before it was accepted by the mainstream. Yet in the years that followed, many of Karbaat’s patients came to suspect the source of their offspring wasn’t their anonymous donor of choice, but Karbaat himself.
Guttman’s film, with honesty both nauseating and empowering, chronicles the experiences of those who found themselves caught in the man’s orbit, and the stranger-than-fiction series of events that followed.
A mixture of contemporary talking heads interviews, incredible archive footage of Karbaat’s operation – including a toe-curling glimpse at his shack-like donation room – and courtroom footage, Seeds of Deceit traces the origins and attitudes of artificial insemination over the years before launching off to examine the lurid legacy of a man who abused his power to deeply disturbing ends.
But Guttman smartly trains her focus more on the brave testaments of Karbaat’s victims, for while sparing no grim detail of the man’s monstrous acts, she always favours her perspective to the women he violated and the children that violation produced.
From the victims, it becomes clear that Karbaat took aggressive advantage of both his elevated position as a respected doctor and the “lower” status of many of the women coming to him for help. The dependency these women had on Karbaat to make their dreams come true allowed him to not only secretly inseminate many of them with his own ejaculate, but in some cases directly sexually assault them. The boldness on display, extending to tampering with the descriptions of the apparent sperm donors, remains shocking throughout the doc’s three episodes.
Soon enough the question arrives – but what about the children? Guttman has impressively gained access to a large number of them, of which there are estimated to be as many as hundreds produced from Karbaat’s seed. Observing their physical similarities to the doctor – particularly his distinctively wide mouth – is jaw-dropping, to say nothing of the clear psychological impact their parentage has on them today.
On one hand, many of Karbaat’s heirs are furious at what happened, though others struggle to reconcile the paradox that they wouldn’t exist without him committing his evil deed. Even some of the parents find themselves mitigating their anger with the gratitude that, after considerable struggles, they were finally able to bring a child into the world.
But amid the horror, there is hope; many of the Karbaat children have joined a WhatsApp chat, effectively acting as a support group where they can exchange their experiences, as well as sometimes meeting in person. Many of the children understandably worry about fighting their genetic “fate” – that is, being a disgraced sexual deviant just like their father – while the nature vs. nurture debate is further poked at with the revelation that many of them share distinct traits with Karbaat; a love of horses, a high sex drive, and ended up working in the medical field.
In episode three, we take a sharp left-turn to focus on two additional donors Karbaat recruited for his work, including Louis, a man who donated sperm for 17 years in an almost industrious quest to spread his seed without needing to be a present father. The piling slew of additionally horrid revelations further underlines just how ramshackle Karbaat’s operation was, and how disgracefully he was allowed to forego regulation for so long.
After all, the salient point is soon enough raised, that many of the thousands of babies born thanks to Karbaat may come from an insanely small donor pool, generating a risk to public health due to inbreeding concerns. With the sperm of Karbaat and his fellow donors eventually travelling the globe, it’s little surprise that children are still learning today that they were part of his horrifying scheme.
The heartbreak is palpable, especially for those parents who trusted their doctor and still find themselves wrestling with conflicting feelings about the end result. The frustrating lack of justice – that Karbaat died in 2017 before he saw a courtroom – is inherently unsatisfying, not to mention the fact that insemination fraud – or rape by deception, as it really is – still lacks sufficient legal provisions in many countries. Given that Guttman’s series ends with a montage of numerous other doctors accused of the same malpractice, there’s a clear necessity for change.
With its densely-packed 135-minute runtime, Seeds of Deceit feels as much a feature-length documentary as it does a typical TV docu-series. Aside from a few misguided moments – a gimmicky aside where some of Karbaat’s victims are brought into a recreation of his examination room, and the needlessly puerile visual of semen dripping down a globe – it mines considerable pathos from its inexplicable story.
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more Sundance coverage.