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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Where is the optimum position to sit in the cinema? Actually that question is better put as, where is your favourite place to sit? For we probably all have differing, individual preferences. There are those that like to sit at the back of everything; the bus, the classroom, the theatre. There are those of a nervous disposition who like to have their seats adjacent to the aisle. Personally I prefer to sit against the wall in the upper middle section, usually away from others with a decent sightline, like the lonely uninteresting enigma I am.
But then perhaps where you sit also depends on the company you’re keeping that evening. If you’re on a hot date, somewhere close to invisible in the depths of darkness at the back, but within thrilling proximity of the projector, is a must. If you’re on a cooler date a discrete but ordinary and satisfactory view is preferable. With friends you want to bag a whole row for yourselves and avoid separation.
I’m the sort of person that requires exceptional circumstances to tolerate lateness. If I’m in charge of some sort of trip my contingent will be there early, with time to spare. I’m only late if I’m not bothered about said event, or if I’m trying to appear nonchalant and lose track of time. My point is that I’ve never timed my arrival badly enough to have to sit in the very front row of the cinema.
Arriving to see Paul it seemed my friends and I had plumped for this unknown space, the very front row, in order to give the appearance of being social. Of course it’s not as if, as decent human beings, we were going to have satisfactory conversations in the middle of a film, but that’s beside the point. Half way through the trailers however a handful loped away from the group for better seats. Leaving me in the front row, with others too embarrassed to surrender and back out of a commitment. Great.
I was thus anticipating a couple of hours of awkward discomfort, followed by a sleepless night due to chronic neck pain. And months of costly chiropractic bills. Which result in my financial ruin. I would drop out of university due to the endless agony and money worries. I’d then lose my car and find myself marooned at home. Scratching my constantly irritated neck in the shower I would slip, crack my head open and start losing unhealthy amounts of blood. I’d manage to drag myself to where my car used to be, but then remember I didn’t have one and die in a messy heap on the drive. All because I sat in the very front row; repeatedly contorting my neck and twisting my head from side to side, as if I were watching tennis, in order to see what was going on in a scene.
Before the end of the trailers though, I was beginning to view my predicament as an exciting opportunity for fresh perspective on the movie experience. Firstly there was extensive, ample leg room. I nudged a friend and performed erratic, normally dangerous, kicking movements in the air to demonstrate this. Perhaps what truly opened my eyes to the perks of the front row however was the trailer to Your Highness. Yes it looked like it might have the potential to be an amusing spoof, but more importantly Natalie Portman’s scantily clad features were rendered larger than life. I mean it was better than 3D.
When Paul the alien first appeared he loomed out of the screen at me. Even prior to this as loveable duo Pegg and Frost wandered in awe around a Comic convention, my proximity meant I felt as part of the crowd as they did. In the opening scene the alien crash landing seemed to happen right in front of my face, maybe because it literally did. The money ploughed into 3D is all well and good; but why not just make wider cinema screens with one endless front row, for the truly interactive experience?
Despite my obvious fascination with the novelty of my viewing position, I eventually lost myself in the film and forgot my surroundings. Because Paul is good enough to lose yourself in. I was really surprised by how much I liked it. Most critics have concluded it’s a poor offering from Pegg and Frost, far inferior to Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Many thought that the marrying of American and British humour was uneasy and un-funny. I would agree that Hot Fuzz and Shaun are better films. But Paul is the most accessible movie this British comedy duo has ever made. It’s warm and affectionate and very, very funny at times.
I thought that far from hindering the film, the mix of American acting talent and humour with British comedy and perspective, gave this film something different, compared to the likes of Fuzz and Shaun. One minute you’d have a very British joke about tea, followed by some edgier comedy about creationism or physical, bumbling stuff from the pursuing FBI agents. None of it was groundbreaking but I laughed out loud several times. And there are some lovely touches for fans of sci-fi, with the appearance of a certain Ms Weaver and a recurring joke about the three tits given to a monster by Pegg’s illustrator.
There’s also a recurring gag about Pegg and Frost’s characters being a gay couple, which is nothing new to us Brits. Whilst this is predictable and not greatly funny, I didn’t find it an annoying recurrence but an endearing one. And if Paul has predictable moments it makes up for them with some really surprising twists at the end, even if they come alongside things you’ll see coming a mile off.
What about Paul himself then? Even for me, from my close up vantage point, the CGI looked pretty believable and flawless. I actually preferred Seth Rogen’s voice to Seth Rogen’s voice plus his body. As funny as he is he can also be irritating. I loved the concept of an alien influencing and absorbing our culture and it allowed lots of sci-fi related, more sophisticated gags alongside the obvious visual ones. Paul even mimics Rose hilariously from Titanic as Pegg draws him. I found Frost’s standard performance of a pathetic loser more touching in Paul than any other Pegg/Frost film, because of the way he can bond with both Rogen’s voice and the CGI Paul’s mannerisms. Pegg was the most impressive thing about the recent Burke and Hare, but here his acting is rather one dimensional and generic.
A supporting cast of Yanks including Jason Bateman and Glee’s Jane Lynch add flavour to the mix. But overall Paul is rather simple. This doesn’t make it bad. There is great to joy be found in the comic delivery of Pegg and Frost, and the fusing of thoroughly British funnies with American reactions in an American setting. The final, ordinary line of the film, hilariously delivered by Frost, sums up Paul: “That was good wasn’t it”.
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