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
“Shall we do something different?”
Yes please. Different is good. Different is a much needed break in routine, a relief from the crushing weight of the same-old-same-old cycle and an antidote to incoming insanity. Different is the much missed friend putting an end to the loneliness, at least for a while. Different is a reminder that life is full of innumerable things to make your heart leap and your mind spin excitedly.
Most of the time though I’m a useless person to ask for something different to do. It might be because I’ll be perfectly content in your company doing something mundane. Or it might be that no matter what we find to do, I’ll be unmoved by your presence and wishing you into someone else.
I’d like to think it’s because I think and dream too big. “Different” whisks my imagination off to alternative, culture rich lives in majestic European cities, seedy exploring and wandering in the downtown sprawl of Tokyo or star gazing from the core of the Big Apple. “Different” means a totally new me, another identity in another world; sitting in sleek sci-fi surroundings or standing at the corner of a glamorous Hollywood set from yesteryear. Maybe a different me would be knuckling down to a novel, screenplay or acclaimed biography.
Whilst I do spend too much time conjuring these far from feasible fantasy scenarios in my head, in reality I am narrow minded and imprisoned by the familiar. We all know what it’s like to be bound to the events of a set cycle and the trick to fulfilling lives is packing your itinerary with interesting and varied activities. Or perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s all about character and personality.
Everyone has a carefree friend and they’ll probably tell you to be spontaneous. They’re the ones who come up with the different ideas. My organisation fetish is perhaps incompatible with this zest for life and ability to not just put on a brave face or forget your worries, but forget you have the capacity to worry. These are the people that will pluck two random and achievable everyday things out of the air to create an enjoyable, “different” experience.
And so I come to the point: last night I watched a film with a friend on a laptop on a rural hill. She won’t be offended if I say that she’s not exactly carefree and laidback, so we were both rather surprised when she suggested such a random idea. It was a regular local beauty spot “with a twist”. It was different. Wonderfully and refreshingly different.
It some ways it hardly matters what the film was. The novelty was the important thing. Even having a laptop in my car, combining two things that I use everyday for the first time, provided inexplicable satisfaction. It might have been simply that a portable computer was truly mobile and that in theory we could watch a film or play solitaire anywhere my petrol tank could take us. I think I overcame most of the technological thrills to be gained from a laptop a while ago now though, so all I can really say, once again, is that it was different, it was new, and that this is what was so pleasing.
We watched Flight 93, a drama about the fourth plane to crash on the 11th September 2001 and the only one not to hit its target, due to the bravery of the passengers onboard. It was a rather heavy and “emotionally harrowing” thing to watch in the dead of night on a blustery hilltop. But we’d been meaning to watch it for AGES and maybe the delay deserved a grand, a different, setting.
I’m not going to review Flight 93. It has its faults, from dodgy CGI to flimsy characterisation, and felt like very melodramatic TV drama, but its aims in telling such a story were admirable. If this is a review it’s a review of a location.
So transforming a sweeping vista of a countryside valley into a personal cinema experience was easy – but was it worth the relatively minimal effort?
Well the “wow factor” of having stunning scenery casually in the background to the action of the story, was almost non-existent, because it was pitch black. We both agreed, obviously, that it was a more beautiful and stunning sight in daylight. However the dots of light twinkling below, decreasing in number as the film progressed, were a more interesting backdrop than the usual living room picture or bedroom clock.
What about the atmosphere? I think this was definitely enhanced in some ways by our elevated location. Given the film’s subject matter, the height of our position went a tiny way to making us feel in the air on a plane, certainly more than sitting at home. I guess we were also in a vehicle and the handbrake groaned a couple of times, so we may have felt a fraction of that helpless dependency on machinery.
The most atmospheric thing was probably the howling wind. Wrapped in darkness, I could feel the isolation of the people on Flight 93, separated from their families and loved ones by deadly danger. I felt I could imagine their intense loneliness a little better, filtering it through my own memories and the solitary surroundings of my car. And the sound of that wind rocking us was just a hint of the noises that would have terrified them.
Perhaps the best thing was the privacy. It’s great to watch films as part of an audience, each person reacting in their own individual way and passing on part of their experience to those around them, but films like Flight 93 are built on the personal. Our very different auditorium allowed us to digest our own reactions to Flight 93 in comfortable darkness, whilst also sharing our thoughts with the very best company, not just strangers or any old popcorn muncher.
I live in England and the drive-in cinema is an American phenomenon but even stateside it’s something that has largely become cultural heritage. What I learnt this weekend though is that getting out there to watch films definitely has its merits, particularly with the right friends.
Forgive me if I got overexcited about this. I’d love to hear the best and strangest places you’ve watched films. I know it’s possible to take the cinema anywhere these days, so go on, surprise me. Or surprise yourselves with a cinematic excursion.
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