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.