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A baby's fight to live raises moral issues

October 28, 2005|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

When Nicholas James Baba-Conn made his premature entry into the world in 2002, he was given the slimmest chances of survival. He was 100 days premature and weighed less than a pound. His heart was "the size of a cashew" and he wore tiny blood pressure sleeves that looked like Band-Aids. Fitting comfortably in one's hand, Nicholas looked as helpless and fragile as a baby bird. His otherworldly appearance emphasized the amniotic environment from which he had been unceremoniously removed via an emergency C-section.

We know all this because his mother, Nicole Conn, happens to be a filmmaker.

While raising numerous ethical questions, Conn's documentary "Little Man" is an intensely personal tale of surrogate motherhood, difficult choices and the enormous strain special-needs children put on families. Above all, it's a testament to the will to live and how that spirit can be found in even the smallest of packages.

Seven years into their relationship, Conn and her partner, political activist Gwen Baba, chose to have a second child. Baba was the birth mother of their daughter, Gabrielle, but two years later felt she was too old to carry another, and Conn is unable to bear children. Their search for a surrogate led them to a Bay Area woman who was not entirely forthcoming about her health, which led to unforeseen complications. Early on, Conn and Baba learned the fetus was not developing properly and were faced with the difficult decision of whether to continue the pregnancy.

The couple, who live in Los Angeles, were not on the same page on the issue. Baba was worried about the effects on the family of having a special needs child, and Conn believed abortion was not an option. Nicholas' premature arrival further complicated the issue because of the demands of his medical care. For 158 days, he remained in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Conn spent long days prodding doctors and nurses for information and being a self-described nuisance while Baba cared for Gabrielle and kept the household going. Meanwhile, Nicholas underwent myriad medical procedures, making more comebacks than Muhammad Ali.

Conn says she did not plan the film. The day before Nicholas was born, she had purchased a digital video camera for a planned documentary on surrogacy and had it with her at the hospital. During the first three months of the baby's difficult life, Conn's brother, Brian Hoven, recorded the struggles. It was only after reluctantly reviewing that footage that Conn realized she was living an incredible story.

The resulting movie emphasizes Nicholas' fight for survival, in which his birthdays were initially counted in 24-hour increments, but also turns the camera on Conn and Baba's difficulties in holding their relationship together and asks complex questions of the filmmaker and the audience. Conn is incredibly self-aware of her situation and questions whether she is doing the right thing for Nicholas, "When does caring become cruelty?" The film may also affect the idea of what "choice" means to people.

Conn alludes to the price society pays for babies such as Nicholas in terms of the scientific advances that allow for the creation of "manufactured disabilities" in children who previously would not have survived and the state subsidies (at least in California) of their medical care. Separate films could be (and perhaps have been) made on these subjects, and it's understandable that "Little Man" cannot address them further. One quibble, however, is that the film does not reveal what happened to Mary, the surrogate mother, after Nicholas was born.

"Little Man" is masterfully edited by Conn, Danny Jacobsen and Sean Present as an edge-of-your-seat, heart-in-your-throat suspense story, balanced with the more prosaic aspects of the circumstances. As immersed as she was as a mother in the daily life-and-death battle, Conn the filmmaker was acutely aware that life itself goes on. She also adroitly used humor -- much of it provided by Nicholas' emerging personality -- to recover from the film's most intense moments.

The film has a raw and intimate emotional quality reminiscent of Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation." It will undoubtedly produce vastly different responses from audience members based on their own experiences and beliefs. Whether they agree with the decisions made, "Little Man" is a powerful and challenging documentary that will affect audiences long after they've passed through the lobby.


'Little Man'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Graphic medical procedures on a very tiny patient

Released by Jour de Fete Films. Writer-director Nicole Conn. Executive producer David C. Bohnett. Producer Danny Jacobsen. Editors Nicole Conn, Danny Jacobsen, Sean Present. Music Mark Chait.

At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869

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