Spermworld – Metonym and Metaphors in Documentary


In this episode of my podcast “Shitty Diary of a Wannabe Cinephile,” I discuss my thoughts on the documentary “Sperm World,” which exceeded my expectations by offering a nuanced and poetic narrative instead of the exploitative style typical of Vice Media documentaries. The documentary explores the alternative sperm donation market, following women seeking donors for various reasons and men who donate, some without charging. I highlight the impressive cinematography and use of visual metaphors to emphasize themes of marginalization and the desire for motherhood. I recommend the documentary, praising its aesthetic and narrative approach.


Welcome to another episode of Shitty Diary of a Wannabe Cinephile. Thanks once again to the amazing composer for this intro. Today, I’m driving, so sorry for the noises. It’s an early morning, the sun is starting to rise, and I’m recording some of my thoughts about the documentary Sperm World that I watched yesterday. It surprised me; I expected something quite different. I thought it would be like the Vice documentaries on YouTube that are very exploitative, using the “curious underbelly of society” narrative to gain clicks. Instead, I got a very nuanced, poetic documentary

The filmmaker, I believe, is Lance Oppenheim—no, not Oppenheimer, the guy who made The Act of Killing. I had to double-check on IMDb because their names are similar. It was an interesting surprise because this documentary uses the language of poetics, which I didn’t expect. Let’s get into that by comparing Vice Media documentaries with a documentary that embraces visual poetics.

There is a great book on this called Metaphor and Metonym in Films, which discusses how these two concepts bring poetics to visual language. Metonymy is often misunderstood as metaphor. A metonymy involves substituting one word or image with another that is closely related. For example, saying someone is “fast as a rabbit” is a metonymy, not a metaphor, because it’s a comparison. In visual language, metonymy might involve using a time-lapse to show the passage of time or cutting to a cheetah to indicate speed. Edgar Wright, for instance, plays with metonyms in his movies. In Shaun of the Dead, the opening scene uses the idea of zombies as a metonym for a broken-down world.

On the other hand, a metaphor involves a figure of speech, like calling a building a “skyscraper.” It’s poetic because it suggests a building scrapes the sky, which isn’t literally possible. A famous metaphor in film is the time-lapse in 2001: A Space Odyssey where a bone thrown by a primate transitions to a spaceship, symbolizing human technological advancement.

In documentaries, and television in general, metonyms are common. For instance, crime reporting often uses imagery of poor neighborhoods to suggest criminality, which can be problematic. Many documentaries use metonyms without understanding the poetics of the language, leading to superficial storytelling.

I was surprised by Sperm World because I thought it would be exploitative given its title. Instead, it explores the alternative market for sperm donors and the women who seek these donations for various reasons, including financial and social constraints or being in a state that doesn’t accept LGBTQIA+ parenthood. The documentary follows a few stories from both the donors’ and the recipients’ perspectives, highlighting why men donate and why women seek alternative methods.

The stories are fascinating, and the editing must have involved sifting through a lot of material to find these compelling narratives. The film’s photography is stunning, using oppressive blue tones to create a feeling of inhospitable environments, such as roadside motels. This aesthetic choice metaphorically represents the marginalized women seeking motherhood against societal barriers.

The documentary does have staged elements, which is fine since the fly-on-the-wall, cinéma vérité style is outdated. Instead, this approach creates intimacy and allows viewers to engage with the stories, despite the awkward and often depressing settings.

One poignant moment involves a woman who decides against using a donor because she’s dying and fears her child would be left alone. The final image of her lying in a hospital bed, watching seagulls, symbolically represents the babies being carried away. It leaves viewers contemplating the struggles and desires of these women in modern society.

Lance Oppenheim, the director, also made Some Kind of Heaven, a documentary about retirement communities in Florida, which I now want to see. Sperm World was a pleasant surprise, and I highly recommend it. On a scale from 1 to 87, I’d give it a solid 80. It’s a well-made, thought-provoking documentary that uses the poetics of visual language effectively.

That’s it for today. If you liked this episode, please rate it on your preferred platform—zero stars if you hated it, five stars if you loved it. You can find more at manteocicada.com, with a link to the transcript in the description. See you next time!

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