Tag Archives: 2000

Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade


Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.

It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.

Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.

Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity. 

Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.

Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.

And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.

Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.

At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.

But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.

The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.

Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.

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Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 3: Bargain DVDs – Trainspotting and The Wrestler


The big day is upon us. The masculine apocalypse is now. The horsemen will round the corner towards Westminster Abbey any moment, dragging their cargo of the merry middle class and nostalgic Eton boy politicians, right into our living rooms. Oh my god it’s not long until we get to see Kate’s dress!

Shoot me now. I am apprehensive, a little scared even, because I may have been advocating alternatives to the big day but I know I’m fighting an entity so vast that it will inevitably stray into my line of sight at some point. I won’t be able to flee the hordes living and breathing the ceremony like it was their own. It wouldn’t even do any good to flee abroad, if anything they’re more marriage mad than the most devout British Royalist. So I definitely cannot outrun this and in addition I have another problem. I can’t hide from it either, because I’ve already consumed the alternatives in order to point them out to all of you. Blokes, guys and lads everywhere, I hope you appreciate my sacrifice.

We’ve reached the final alternative step and its one I like to think of as the emergency measure. Thor at the cinema requires venturing out and United on iPlayer requires dangerous proximity to internet coverage, but these two films on DVD, available on the bargain shelves of any local high street, merely need a TV. I know, believe me I know, the wedding is on all the channels.  But if you have an even more serious aversion to confetti and vows than me, just pull the aerial out and stick these two very manly films in to play, one after another.

Firstly then a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long while, the Scottish breakthrough piece for Danny Boyle, Trainspotting. Despite all the hype, from critics and friends alike, I really didn’t know what to expect from this exactly. I knew there was drug taking, in all likelihood sex, and an awful lot of accented foul language. I knew it starred an emaciated Ewan McGregor. I knew it would have both fun and filth. I knew Boyle’s playful style would scrawl a signature in every scene. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so hilarious and true to life as it was.

Much of the humour comes from the characters of McGregor’s Mark Renton’s “so called mates”. Johnny Lee Miller, now starring fifteen years on in Boyle’s critically acclaimed Frankenstein opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the theatre, plays a Sean Connery obsessed, seemingly streetwise fellow crack addict. His assessments of Connery’s performances as James Bond and his astonishing grasp of box office data, were particularly surreal for a fellow Bond fan like me, as he helped friends to inject heroin. He turns out to be far less clued up than he pretends to be though. Then there’s Spud, a guy who is very plainly clueless from the start, who lands up throwing his shit all over his girlfriend’s family at breakfast. Don’t ask how. Slapstick perhaps, but I laughed for several minutes.

There’s also Tommy, a guy McGregor’s surprisingly appealing narration informs us has the fault of being honest and not addicted to any banned substance. I assume the visceral poetry of Renton’s narration is so attractive because it is transplanted largely untouched from Irvine Walsh’s novel, which is infamous for its use of Scottish dialect. A scene where Tommy and Spud discuss the pitfalls of their respective women at a club, and the girlfriends do likewise about the boys in the toilets, presumably also has its roots in the book. But it’s wonderfully adapted by Boyle, with subtitles not quite necessary because of the noise and very capable comic acting depicting the darkly funny give and take realities of relationships.

Finally there’s a young Kelly Macdonald, who has since appeared in No Country For Old Men, in her first film. Renton catches sight of her in a club as she’s leaving, with his sex drive rapidly returning as he attempts to give up his habit. He follows her outside, as his narration tells us he’s fallen in love, and tries it on with her. She confidently shoots him down, only to snog his face off in the taxi and subsequently shag him rampantly in her room. In the morning Renton discovers she’s a schoolgirl, and the people he presumes to be flatmates are her parents. It’s the sort of cheeky scene present throughout the film but it centres on deeper, more disturbing truths about youths trapped in a certain limited form of existence.

Renton is undoubtedly trapped by his addiction and his school girl lover is trapped by her age, a desire to break free and be independent. We all know what it’s like to feel trapped; it’s a very human feeling, despite our supposed freedom. Whether you’re a nurse at a crowded hospital running a gauntlet of noses going off like shotguns of snot, a doctor watching patients with crash dummy heads and vacant eyes or one of thousands of the unemployed youths in this country retreading the same old paths, the same old trenches of memory through the earth, with no concept of a future. We can all get that feeling, and recognise it in others.

Ay na donne get all political pal? Keep it light! Ay?

Ah yes I forgot a character. Robert Carlyle plays Begbie, a moustachioed Scott whose job description reads thus: “playing pool and drinking at the bar, until a minor action by another customer causes him to lose his rag and beat everyone shitless”. Begbie’s probably trapped too, but to be honest his character never seemed much more than smashing entertainment. Literally.

The thing about Renton is that he thinks he’s beaten the rest of us buggers trapped in the game of life, chasing after fat televisions and fancy cars. He thinks that by choosing drugs he’s chosen nothingness and some sort of purer, pleasure filled existence. But like every revolutionary he comes to realise he is as trapped by the system as those embracing it. He needs money for his hits, friends for his sanity. Or maybe not friends, as you’ll see if you watch the film.

Trainspotting is a damn good ride through the monotony of modern existence, with eccentric but hilarious and extremely likeable tour guides. It’s more than your average tourist experience because at times it really gets you to think. And as an exploration of drug culture, Boyle’s direction is suitably dirty, bizarre and haunting, but also responsible and not over the top. You’ll flinch at some of the filth, the needles and most of all McGregor screaming his lungs out at a hallucination of a baby. Trainspotting is not simply a mash-up of visual clichés about getting high though, perhaps because it has such a strong grounding in character.

And so we come to The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Now Darren, as I like to call him, is someone I have a love/hate relationship with. First came the love, as I fell head over heels for the sensuality of Black Swan (https://mrtsblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/black-swan/) and then came the hate, when I followed this up with his earlier much praised work, Requiem for a Dream (https://mrtsblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/an-open-letter-to-darren-aronofsky/).

One of the reasons I found Trainspotting so refreshing was that whilst it dealt with drugs and it had its strange and psychedelic scenes of intoxication; it did not become the pretentious exercise in filmmaking that was Requiem for a Dream. I will probably be slated for saying it, and it may merely have been the context in which I first saw it (see link), but I really didn’t like that film. I did not see the point to it. Trainspotting seemed to say something far truer about addiction, despite its tongue often being firmly in cheek.

I only bring this up because it all meant that I didn’t know what I was going to get from The Wrestler; dazzling Darren or dopey Darren. The critical buzz around Mickey Rourke’s resurrected corpse meant not a jot, because some of them hated Black Swan and some of them loved Requiem.

I would not go as far as the five star quotes plastered over the cover. I would not call it the “ultimate man film” as FHM did. But it’s undoubtedly a film about a man and ageing, whereas Trainspotting, with hindsight, was a film for boys. Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is someone trapped by his past, the legacy of his prime, and the mistakes he made during that ripe period of life.

Perhaps Rourke put in such a praiseworthy performance because he could really inhabit his character. He has been there, more or less. Rather than playing a caricature or a gun toting gangster, Rourke is simply a person here; a human being in decline, or as he says in one moving speech “a broken down piece of meat”. At first I didn’t see what all the fuss about his performance was, but then after a few emotional scenes with a potential lover and ageing stripper (Marisa Tomei) and particularly some heartbreaking confrontations with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), Rourke brings Randy to life.

There’s always the danger of melodramatic sentimentality, but the film manages to avoid it, primarily because of the masculine restraint of Rourke’s portrayal. Aside from some brutal wrestling scenes and one careless fuck, this is rather pedestrian territory for Darren after the frenzied, frenetic highs of Requiem and the disorientating dash for beautiful perfection in Black Swan. The Wrestler certainly didn’t grab me and it didn’t inspire the extremes of emotion that Darren’s two other efforts did. It has sporting parallels with Black Swan but lacks the wow factor of that film.

I don’t think there’s necessarily anything that wrong with The Wrestler. In some ways it is refreshing to see a film that shows so many sides of a man’s ordinary life, making his escape from that routine via his passion all the more meaningful. There’s no doubt that performing as a wrestler requires a certain level of very manly commitment to the drama. This film will offset any feminine activities like dusting icing sugar on cupcakes or fashioning paper chains with ease. But it’s so realistic, so dreary and so grim, that this antidote might lead to a dangerous and depressing overdose.

If you watch these back to back, watch Trainspotting last. It’s fun as well as not for the faint hearted. Either film is preferable to pointless precessions though, I’m sure you’ll agree. Never mind God Save the Queen, God save male souls everywhere and best of luck!