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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Tagged 150, 200 billion, 2000, 2010, 2011, 21st century, adventures, AID, AIH, Angeles, argument, babies, baby, big screen, birth, blog, California, Catholics, Caught, Center, centre, children, Chryogenic, cinema, compelling, conception, country, critic, debate, demo, desert, dilemma, documentary, donation, Donor, DVD, earth, economical, emotional, engaging, ethics, evil, family, father, fertility, film, Film4, Flickering, football, freeze, gem, gentle, gift, give, god, Great, heart, identity, immoral, in, industry, internet, issue, Jeffrey, Jerry, JoEllen, LA, Las, law, Liam, life, Los, medical, Microsoft, modern, moral, More4, motherhood, mothers, movie, myth, narrative, Offside, patchwork, Politics, precious, present, register, religion, repopulate, Review, rights, Rothwell, runtime, RV, sample. The Sperminator, science, semen, sensitive, shock, small screen, sperm, story, superb, surprise, Ten, The, theatres, themes, thoughts, top, touching, trade, treatments, Trim, turns, tv, twists, unconventional, Unknown, USA, Vegas, Venice Beach, warming, website, word, World, writer
After things really seemed to be getting somewhere with episodes 2 and 3, last night (the first time I have watched The Shadow Line as scheduled, 9pm BBC 2) things once again became a blend of baffling plot lines and bad dialogue, punctuated by the odd superb scene. This is one of those programmes so determined to keep us guessing that no sooner are we given a clutch of answers, a bucket full of more questions is splashed into our bemused faces.
The answers come in the form of customs officer Robert Beatty, who was the guy sultry sidekick Honey had a fight with last time. He’s one of these deep cover types working beyond the police, doing things they can’t like he doesn’t give a shit. It turns out that the drugs murdered Harvey Wratten used to get his rare Royal Pardon were already his. Beatty also reveals there was a second requirement for the Pardon; saving the life of a cop. In this case information was given to save him and his family from a car bomb. But it quickly emerges that the bomb was probably planted by Wratten too. So Wratten arranged a get out of jail free card for himself. Well mostly free, just minus millions of pounds worth of drugs.
Obviously Gabriel thinks this is getting somewhere with the case, that he’s been given three extra weeks to save. But it’s difficult to say where this breakthrough leads or what it means and his boss has a problem with that. Even though they’ve got a blurry picture of Gatehouse on CCTV too AND they’ve linked him to a big drug deal, where Gatehouse appeared to be acting on behalf of the vanished but ever present Glickman, who was in turn acting for Wratten because he was banged up. Confused much?
And that’s just the professional side of the police case. We haven’t even mentioned Gabriel’s personal problems. He didn’t have any agonising moments staring at that inexplicable briefcase full of cash this week but the mother of his secret child told him to tell his wife of their existence, who is finally pregnant. This is the cue for just one of many terrible lines in this episode. Gabriel, clearly in a sticky situation, blankly says “I’m in hell” only for the mother of his child to hit back with “No, we’re in limbo”. She then says she won’t have her son growing up in the shadows, which is far too forced a reference to the show’s title.
On the criminal side of the case, Bob Harris is sweating his hairy backside off because one of his supply lines has been compromised by customs, which is how the police know about Glickman getting the drugs for Wratten. How do I know he has a hairy backside you ask? I don’t for sure but I’m judging by the rest of his portly, sagging, ageing body. We’re treated to a scene with Harris and a gay lover, with Harris sporting a pair of very tight pants and awkwardly resting on his side like a beached whale, and the lover wearing nothing at all. He is sprung from a police station by an anonymous benefactor at the beginning of the episode and ever since has been stuck in camp seductive mode. He also gets some terrible lines and provides Harris with the information that apparently Jay Wratten is responsible for the busting of his line.
Jay of course, has been told by Andy Dixon the driver, that Harris killed Harvey. So he has a reason to piss him off. But Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede interrogates Jay and he insists he didn’t do anything. We see very little of Bede this week, apart from when he’s questioning Jay and Glickman’s girlfriend, but Jay does get to pay another over the top, intimidating visit to Glickman’s son. And this is where we see the mysterious, deadly Gatehouse again.
Perched atop a mountain of office furniture, Gatehouse is across the street from Glickman’s son with some very fancy tech for listening to phone conversations etc. Eventually he decides to pop round to the home of Glickman’s son and play the kindly old fashioned gentleman card. Glickman’s sceptical daughter-in-law is won over by his harmless demeanour and Gatehouse gains access to the downstairs loo. After opening and closing the window briefly, he lets himself out. After calling her husband about the visitor, the wife goes upstairs to check on the wailing baby, prompted by the baby monitor. Their little girl is not there.
I was glad when Gatehouse showed up eventually last night because the rest of the episode had been poor. With Gatehouse though you know things are going to be suspenseful and tense and that something is going to happen, even without him doing very much. Here he’d magically whisked the baby outside, simply by opening and shutting a window in the toilet. Surely he must have had help? After dashing about the house absolutely distraught, she finds her baby and then Gatehouse, who chillingly tells her to call her husband “NOW” via the baby monitor. Glickman is then told Gatehouse wants to hear from him.
This episode has time for one more confusing but majestic scene. The journalist, otherwise known as that bloke from Casino Royale, who has been investigating police corruption throughout the series, features strongly in this episode asking people questions without really getting anywhere. Then he’s given the job of city editor at his paper, along with a far from feasible pay rise. Prior to this Gatehouse calls him up for an anonymous meeting but does nothing; not even speaking to him. Instead he gets hold of his home address pretending to be a deliveryman. Then comes the outstanding scene.
McGovern (name of said journalist) rides out of the city in his leathers and into the countryside towards home and his wife, where he can tell her the good news of his promotion. The tension slowly builds as it’s evident something will happen. Then we see a car in the distance on a straight road, with McGovern heading towards it. Both vehicles, bike and automobile, disappear into a dip in the middle of the road. We hear a screech and only the car emerges on the other side. The episode ends with a close up of our fallen journalist, in the middle of a sun drenched road, blood dripping in vivid drops from his helmet against a background of bright blue sky.
Scenes like that are the reason I continue to watch The Shadow Line. Some of them use too much style but most are refreshingly well executed, subtle and classy. This episode was full of irritating performances, including McGovern/Casino Royale man’s intonation that made everything sound like a question, hardly a subtle portrayal of an investigative journalist. It also had some of the worst dialogue so far and perhaps more of it. And the plot development became frustratingly unsatisfying too. But occasionally I am still gobsmacked, even in this mostly bad episode, and I am still intrigued.
With some questions answered new ones arise. Why kill the pestering journalist when he appeared to know very little? More interesting still, why did Gatehouse kill him, when he was investigating police corruption? Do Gabriel and Gatehouse know each other? Perhaps Gabriel simply can’t remember with that bullet inconveniencing his brain. And how exactly did it get there? Was Gabriel responsible for the death of partner Delaney? Can Chiwetel Ejiofor put in a good performance despite increasingly ludicrous plot twists for his character and sledgehammer emotional dialogue? Will Bede and Glickman’s girlfriend get together? Will next week be more enjoyable and make more sense? Will I get to see Bob Harris completely naked?
I’ll keep watching for the answers.
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