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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.

Torchwood to return in summer 2011 with Miracle Day


Captain Jack Sparrow has recently returned to swashbuckling action at sea in Pirates 4. Not to be outdone, John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness of Torchwood is soon set to burst back onto our screens. But the Americans will be getting the first look.

Just as the latest series of Doctor Who began in the US, its spinoff is going stateside. And judging by the trailer (see bottom), in a very big way. The last series of Torchwood, Children of Earth, took it away  from both its ties to Doctor Who and its naff storylines in favour of one epic plot. The fruits of the BBC’s colloboration with American company Starz appears to be vastly higher production standards and cinematic scale to realise such scripts.

Once again there seems to be just the one key plot with more adult sci-fi themes. Last time it was governments bribing an alien with children to avoid an attack. This series has the big idea of – what would happen if everybody stopped dying? 

This is an interesting theme, given that, as fans of the show will know, Captain Jack cannot die because after he was killed by the Daleks in the first series of modern Doctor Who, Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler brought him back to life using the energy of the TARDIS. Which yeah makes him immortal somehow, don’t ask me watch the show.

After series 2 of Torchwood I had given up on it. The idea of an adult sci-fi show, Spooks meets Doctor Who, was an immensely exciting one. The first ever episode, about a sex crazed alien, was pleasing enough for teens but hardly satisfying sci-fi storytelling, a waste of the premise and a taste of most of what was to come. Children of Earth restored my faith and now the trailer for Miracle Day looks mindblowing.

It will benefit from discarding most of the original cast in favour of better known and probably more capable Americans. And hopefully, with Russell T. Davies also now free of Doctor Who duties, he can give it his best rather than his disappointing worst. The differences between the RTD era and Moffat’s reign, coupled with the new direction of both series, makes the dream combination of Torchwood and Doctor Who unlikely for fans in the near future though.

Anway enough waffling teasing. Here’s that trailer. A really pleasant surprise. WARNING: British viewers, a helicopter actually realistically blows up!

http://bit.ly/mnvAoR

Torchwood: Miracle Day lands in America in July. And if the BBC know what’s good for them it will air here shortly after.

Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 1: Thor 3D at the cinema


If you’re not fed up with the circus yet, you soon will be. Every clowning performer, every newsreader, commentator and gushing crowd member, will be salt rubbed into your severely wounded mood. Gossiping and gawping at two rich strangers is irritating for half an hour, annoying for an evening and soul destroying after days and weeks. Wedding talk is a stressful and pointless nuisance. At the end of this week the womenfolk will be in an unstoppably riotous mood. It will be terrifying.

Your masculinity will be torturously chipped away. The usual refuge, the pub, will be hideously transformed into a paradise of bunting and delicate decoration. When the confetti and the cupcakes and the tiaras get too much, new escape routes will be needed. After the horrors of the day itself, you’ll need to rediscover your true self and chill out as a bloke again.

For the alternatives to the madness, the cures to wedding fever and feral femininity, keep it glued to Flickering Myth. We’ll remind you that there’s good honest entertainment worth living for after a monstrous marriage marathon.

Your first anti-wedding tip then is Kenneth Branagh’s (that’s right the thespian and national treasure, directing a comic book adaptation) eagerly anticipated Marvel epic Thor, in three dimensions courtesy of the now standard issue Elton John specs. After all what could be more manly than a hero with impossibly mahoosive muscles and a badass cape, whose principal superpower is a giant hammer for bashing stuff to bits? He’s a God-like handyman irresistible to women and the envy of lesser men.

I promised myself I wouldn’t resort to atrocious puns to describe the merits and failures of Branagh’s creation, as other reviews have done. But then I thorght, by Odin’s beard there’s no harm in saying that whilst this isn’t quite a thor star film, its plot hammers along with such thunderous gusto that it at least cracks the norse code of decent superhero movies for the most part. The critics are right to muck about with words and have fun with their reviews though; because Thor, whatever its faults, is a fun watch.

Despite the drawbacks of spending much of the running time in the CGI kingdom of Asgard, I found such a different setting mostly refreshing. Gleaming golden palaces, elaborate armour and impossible landscapes are ingredients unavailable to the likes of Batman and Iron Man, no matter how artificial the environment might sometimes seem. Undeniably at times the 3D CGI is visually dazzling and striking. There are even a number of good, thumping action scenes in the eternal realm. As some reviewers have pointed out, setting much of the film in Asgard ensures the audience becomes attached to it, whether they appreciate its over the top beauty or not.

There’s no doubt that the fun factor only truly kicks in when things literally crash down to earth though. There are a good number of gags, nearly all of which are LOL worthy. Thor amusingly thrashes about at the humans he interacts with, struggling to accept he is at the mercy of the mortals. He only really bonds with one of us human plebs, the beautiful and gorgeous (I do not have a crush!) Natalie Portman. She plays a scientist on the verge of some vague but momentous discovery to do with particles and space or something. Thor sees she is clever. And that she’s a woman too. Portman is by no means mesmerising as she is in Black Swan here, but she does the job asked of her by the story, as do Anthony Hopkins and even Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who looked so wooden in the trailer. No I don’t just think she did a good job because she’s hot.

You might like to know the basic thrust of Thor’s plot: Thor heir to throne, Thor seeks revenge on Frost Giants, Thor banished for breaking peace, Thor seeks to find lost hammer, Thor inadvertently falls for hot human scientist, Thor tries to return to save kingdom. I like to think he may have grunted it out bluntly like that. And yes you read that rightly, the bad guys in this are called Frost Giants. They are perhaps Thor’s weakest ingredient; childishly simple foes that are difficult to take seriously. But again they are at least different to standard superhero fare.

The best bits, besides the laughs, following Thor’s fall to earth are two stunning action scenes. The first sees Thor roaring like King Kong as he bashes a bunch of S.H.I.E.L.D agents. He’s trying to get to his beloved magical hammer, which is sealed off by awesome looking white tubes by the guys in suits that will link all Marvel’s superheroes together for the forthcoming Avengers film. The second climatic action scene sees Thor and his warrior friends fleeing from a fire breathing robot despatched by the traitor in Asgard’s camp to kill Thor.

This scene gets the best out of a small and dusty New Mexico town location; by smashing it to pieces with fantastic fiery explosions. The really impressive and surprising thing, especially given all the talk about Thor’s visual style, is the sound the killer robot makes every time it unleashes a fireball; it’s so piercing and deafening that you feel the impact of each blast. My friend violently flinched in surprise at one moment when the thing shaped up to slap something. Then in the aftermath of the destruction the soundtrack and the visuals reach suitably epic proportions for Thor’s big race against time comeback moment.

Thor is of course the God of Thunder, which is fitting given that most superheroes grapple with the stormy consequences of their own God complexes. Needless to say Thor predictably learns his lesson, to put others before yourself is truly heroic blah blah, but in engrossingly epic style. There is just something fun about this film, which makes you reluctant to dwell on its various faults and flaws. Thor ended leaving me wanting more from the character and more from his world, despite the silliness of some of the mythological squabbles. Branagh has not crafted the meaningful art he is accustomed to, but a fun and refreshing thorker of a blockbuster. He may be a prince, but Thor will easily sail your mind away from all things Royal.