BOSTON — When award-winning documentary filmmaker Amy Geller opened her 2011 Bates Alumni magazine, she was blown away by a story about Rachel Segall, a Jewish alumna from Newton in her 40’s with three teenagers who had recently volunteered to be a surrogate so her gay friends could become parents.
Not once, but twice within two years.
“Rachel had seen a television program about how expensive and difficult it is for gay men to have kids. So she called up Erik, her good friend from college, and said, ‘whenever you want to have kids, I’m your gal,’” said Geller. “I was so inspired that I thought, ‘This could be a film!’”
She contacted Rachel through a mutual friend. Rachel was on board and reached out to Sandro Sechi and Erik Mercer, the biological gay dads, who were equally excited. “The Guys Next Door” was a go.
Geller and her filmmaking partner, Allie Humenuk, started shooting in 2011. Geller served as artistic director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival from 2012 until 2014. Her productions have been braoadcast on PBS, the Documentary Channel, the BBC, Yes (Israel) and Turner Classic Movies.
When shooting began, Erik and Sandro were living in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. Rachel and her family were there visiting. “We went down to New York, where both families were staying together in this one-bedroom. It was total chaos. We started filming and we just totally fell in love from the get-go,” Humenuk said.
Humenuk is an award-winning filmmaker and cinematographer whose films have been broadcast nationally and internationally.
Geller and Humenuk have been shooting on and off for over three years. They started filming when Rachel was eight months pregnant with Eleonora, the second child, who is now three years old.
They have wrapped principal photography, edited a trailer and launched an early Kickstarter campaign, running through April 11, to help raise money for post production.
“We’ve built a mutual trust and respect with our characters which enabled us to film some very personal moments, like the birth of Eleonora. It seems ironic that filming something so intimate ends up being very public. But it’s those moments that make documentaries so powerful,” said Humenuk.
The story starts with Rachel, who was raised in a Jewish family and married her Bates College sweetheart, Tony Hurley. They remained friends with fellow alum Erik Mercer and his husband, Sandro Sechi.
“I am Jewish and my parents raised me to believe in equality and giving to others in whatever ways we can. As a mother now, it is important for me to continue living the foundation of those values and teach them to my children,” she said.
“My experience in helping my good friends Erik and Sandro be able to have children symbolizes to me the notion of Tikkun Olam (repair the world) — my little part in helping to heal the world,” she added.
Rachel said that it struck her as unfair that she and her husband could so easily have children and that for two gay men to have children was such a hardship, especially financially.
“By helping her gay friends to have daughters, Rachel makes a deeply personal decision that has political implications,” Geller said. “It’s the ultimate tzedakah (charity).”
Because Rachel was in her 40’s, each child had a separate egg donor. It wasn’t important to either Sandro or Erik who the biological father would be. They had some eggs fertilized by Erik’s sperm and some by Sandro’s sperm. “They had the DNA test and have the results in a sealed envelope, “ Geller said.
In addition to helping her friends have a family, Rachel also saw her surrogacy as a way to create an extended family for her own children. Maddie (now 17), Jordie (now 15), and Zeke (now 13) consider Rachel Maria (now four and a half years old) and Eleonora (now three years old) to be their cousins.
“I believe that being able to help Erik and Sandro have their daughters not only benefits them, but also benefits my family and, really, benefits the world around us,” said Rachel.
“I think that a wonderful gift that has come out of this whole thing is that Rachel’s kids are very invested in this family. So even though there’s no biological connection, they feel very intimately connected,” said Geller.
Co-director Humenuk thinks a film like “The Guys Next Door,” which chronicles a gay family’s life, can help combat discrimination. “The film highlights intimate moments which reveal the beauty, challenge and complexity of being parents. If people see what a loving gay family looks like, it changes minds,” she said.
Rachel agreed. “My hope is that the film helps people see that family can look like many different and wonderful things, and how two gay men, given the opportunity, can create a beautiful home filled with love and strong values, just as well as a heterosexual couple can,” she said.
To view the film’s trailer and learn more about the Kickstarter campaign for “The Guys Next Door,” visit asquaredfilms.com.