Nuclear family Director Ry Russo-Young knew the family included in the HBO documentary very well – because they were his family.
During his childhood in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russo-Young was the subject of the very first paternity lawsuit in which a sperm donor sued a lesbian couple for visitation rights. – and to be legally recognized as the father of the child.
This child, of course, was Ry Russo-Young. The donor was Thomas Steel, a prominent civil rights lawyer, and Ry’s mothers are Robin Young and Sandra Russo. Steel had first established a relationship with Ry during family visits with his partner, Milton Estes, and Milton’s son, Jacob, as of Ry was three years old.
In 1993, Judge Edward M. Kaufmann rendered a decision in Manhattan Family Court that denied Steel’s legal status as Ry’s father.
“It was the first in the country where a gay couple was recognized and a biological parent had no rights,” Russo-Young said. Filmmaker.
Justice Kaufmann’s decision was overturned the following year by the Manhattan State Supreme Court’s Appeal Division, which ruled that he should be granted Ry’s father status. Steel would eventually drop the lawsuit and, much to Russo-Young’s relief, she continued to live with her mother and sister, Cade, who had been conceived from another sperm donor.
As Nuclear family shows, the experience of being dragged in and out of courtrooms complicated Russo-Young’s feelings towards Steel for much of his life. A box of baby videos on VHS tapes – which Steel sent her shortly before her death from complications from AIDS in 1998 – has remained intact in her closet for years.
Doing Nuclear family during the 2020 lockdown, she watched all tapes for the first time. One included a farewell message from Steel.
âI’ve spent so many years, you know, most of my life telling the story on and off – first in the form of the trial, then in press afterwards,â she said. “I wasn’t clear on how I felt about the story or how I felt for my biological father, so I felt that telling the story would clarify my feelings.”
As a director of feature films including that of 2017 Before i fall and 2019 The sun is also a star, Russo-Young for several years tinkered with the idea of ââtelling his story in the form of a fictional narrative. But she ultimately concluded that it would work best as a three-part documentary series.
Another catalyst to make Nuclear family became a mother.
âBecoming a parent myself and having children made me realize what is at stake in history. For my moms, definitely … but even a little bit for my biological dad, how much you fall in love with your child and want to protect that child and worry about that child all the time – it all hit me in a nutshell another level when I was a parent, âshe said. “Plus, the world was finally ready to hear it.”
In the past, Russo-Young recalls, she and her mothers were littered with questions revealing the applicant’s prejudices towards her family. Now she feels more confident that the company will be able to have a more respectful conversation.
âThe questions the world was asking – or the culture asking – about children of gay parents or gay families were sort of derogatory and homophobic questions. You know, “Are children normal? Or “What effect do gay parents have on these children?” “And I felt like the culture could finally handle a more nuanced story about a gay family,” she said.
To have that bigger conversation, she first had to have many smaller conversations in front of the camera with all of the characters who could tell the story, including Steel’s family and friends.
“It was hard to wear these different hats because in a way I had to be as a subject going through something during the making of the movie and have feelings about everything that had happened – I had to be really open and present and emotionally engaged, “she said. âBut then as a director, it’s almost the opposite. As a filmmaker, you need to be aware of the whole story. You think about the way things are built. So there were times when I had to talk about myself in the third person.
From start to finish, Russo-Young wanted viewers to experience the events of the documentary almost as if they happened to them.
âI’ve always wanted to embrace the subjectivity of the experience and have the viewer’s journey watching her mimic my journey emotionally and psychologically,â she said. âThat has always been the plan. “
The three episodes of Nuclear Family is now streaming on HBO.
Main Image: RL: Cade Russo-Young, Robin Young, Ry Russo-Young, Sandra Russo pictured in Nuclear family, courtesy of HBO.