The short film Beholder is set in a near future domed community whose socially conservative politics are eerily familiar. Director Nisha Ganatra isn't subtle with her comparisons to present-day Republicans in the United States. For example, the community is called Red Estates, and a political stump speech includes the phrase "This is the real America," a well-documented conservative talking point in recent years.
The story centers on Sasha, the pregnant wife of popular political candidate Bobby Aryana. At a prenatal exam, she is told her fetus has the genetic marker for homosexuality.1 She tells the doctor, "I don't remember requesting that test" and the doctor responds "There's no need to request it. All fetuses are scanned automatically." He continues, "There's no need to be alarmed. We'll take care of the problem." In Red Estates, there is a highly effective inoculation to "correct the problem." The eroding concept of choice is cemented when the nurse hands Sasha a clipboard saying "Please sign the consent form for the mandatory inoculation." The only other option offered is "termination."
This is not the only trait controlled for; "designer babies" are the norm and a source of pride for the community. A woman in the waiting room boasts, "I hear that blue eyes are all but extinct outside Red Estates." The area outside the domed community, just referred to as "the coast," is viewed with disdain and pity, and discussed as a place of crime and primitive behavior. A Red Estates advertisement states, "Studies show genetically engineered children lead happier lives than children on the coast. Don't let your child be left behind." This echoes the way prenatal technologies can move from an option to a "mandatory choice" in our culture. As prenatal genetic testing becomes safer and more accurate, a woman who doesn't choose it will increasingly be seen as a "bad mother," as has evolved with expectations around ultrasound.
Sasha puts off the inoculation for a couple days and talks to her husband about her concerns: "What if we do this and it changes the baby, you know?" Her husband is not so open minded, and ends up calling the Genetic Protection Agency to forcibly take her to the doctor's office for the inoculation. I'll refrain from spoiling the ending; you can watch the film here.
I think this film could be used in educational settings to start discussions on prenatal genetic testing and choice. Sasha clearly is not given the right of informed consent as it is currently defined (see Informed consent and prenatal genetic testing). She is not told that her fetus will be tested for the marker for homosexuality. And as we have seen, the inoculation to "correct" the marker employs the charade of a consent form but is mandatory. It would be easy for a viewer to dismiss this as a dystopia not relevant to our current medical system. But Ganatra complicates this by making these medical policies something everyone in the community voted on.
Nurse: Please sign the consent form for the mandatory inoculation
Nurse: The last election?
Sasha: Yes of course.. I didn't realize that's what we'd voted in.
By using popular vote as the method, she allows the viewer to draw a direct line from our currently escalating political polarization and the film's segregated conservative environment, where the same trajectory might take us.
Though this aspect of the film isn't directly related to my research, I found Sasha's husband's self-identity to be another interesting facet. His last name, Aryana, could easily be read as a reference to Aryan, the ideal race promoted by some 20th century eugenicists. And Bobby Aryana's personal and public politics echo the rhetoric of the traditional rich white male American. But the actor playing Bobby, Rupak Ginn, is of Indian descent. Ganatra modeled Bobby's character on Bobby Jindal and Alan Keyes, and she has spoken of her confusion at how these men of color can support the social conservatism that has done such a disservice to people of color in the United States:
These are men who have made careers out of suppressing what makes them different. One aim in Beholder was to poke holes in their hypocrisy. How do these political figures work to oppress the civil rights of the very groups to which they and their loved ones belong? (Futurestates)
One example of Bobby's distorted self-identity is the fact that Bobby and Sasha did not select a certain eye color for their baby, even though most couples in Red Estates do. They decided to "roll the dice," as Sasha says. But we learn through a conversation Sasha has with a couple in the waiting room that blue eyes are valued in their community (the couple are also selecting skin color for their child). Sasha has blue eyes and Bobby has brown. It would be in line with his character to want what is most valued within his community: a child with blue eyes. Since brown eyes are dominant, rolling the dice likely won't produce this result. It's possible Bobby's distorted identity of self is influencing which physical traits he wants to control in his offspring. Also of note: Bobby is the only character of color shown in Red Estates.
For such a short film, Beholder makes a great contribution to discussions on political polarization and the impact it could have on the lives of individuals, especially pregnant women.
1It's important to be clear that a genetic marker for homosexuality does not exist according to current science.
Film, images, and director quotes from futurestates.tv.