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Film Review: Donor Unknown - Adventures in the Sperm Trade

31 May 2011
Appeared in BioNews 609

Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade

Directed by Jerry Rothwell

Scientific adviser Dr Allan Pacey

'Donor Unknown', directed by Jerry Rothwell

'I've always wanted to meet my donor just to find out something about myself', says JoEllen Marsh in the documentary Donor Unknown, reflecting the importance for many donor-conceived (DC) people of connecting with the unknown half of their families.

Directed by Jerry Rothwell, this gentle documentary, which was the deserved recent recipient of the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival Best Feature Film award, perfectly demonstrates this need for connection. It follows JoEllen as she traces and meets first some of her half-siblings then her donor, the delightfully eccentric Jeffrey, an unemployed self-confessed 'beach-bum' who lives in an RV with two dogs and a pigeon.

The film unashamedly shows what many may consider Jeffrey's inadequacies. We see him puffing on a bong. We hear his, um, interesting conspiracy theories about the American government's ability to control the weather and cause earthquakes. And we laugh when his rusty oven door falls off as he's tidying his battered RV in preparation for JoEllen's visit.

But I love Jeffrey. Not only is he a spiritual man and kind to animals, he takes his responsibilities as a donor seriously. He was aware he was bringing human beings into existence – 'I always felt there was this miracle attached to it - this divine miracle - and that somehow I'm karmically being asked to be a soul-caller'.

When he read about JoEllen linking up with one of her half-sisters, Danielle Pagano, in an article in the New York Times and realised that he was their donor, he felt he had to get in touch with them. 'It jumped off the page, the anger and being pissed off at being lied to by this girl Danielle… At that very moment I knew I had to let them have a closure, to at least meet me if they want or whatever, [whether they approved or disapproved of me], come what may - it was their right'.

Yes, he's got flaws but so does any member of a 'normal' family – why does he have to be perfect just because he's a donor? We unconditionally accept and care for the members of the families we are born into (or at least try to). If DC people are to embrace their donor relatives as family, they must do the same.

That Jeffrey is family to JoEllen and her half-siblings, that his significance is more than just somebody who happens to share some of the same genetic material, comes across clearly. After JoEllen's visit he says: 'I'm so lucky to have such great friends'. JoEllen says: 'I expect to have a very long relationship with Jeffrey… He's more than just a donor, him coming forward and wanting to meet all of us and share his life with us - it means more than just a donor on a piece of paper'.

My favourite scene was one where Jeffrey gives JoEllen a space blanket. In preparation for the Apocalypse. Bonkers but adorable: long live the Jeffreys of this world!

Donor Unknown
Donor Unknown official website |  23 May 2011
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