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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.

Tangled


Fairytales: they’re all sickly sweetness and light right? You know beautiful princesses, magical kingdoms, swashbuckling heroes, kindly companions etc. Well no. Think of any classic fairytale and chances are there’ll be generous portions of nasty evil deeds hand in hand with the overwhelming prettiness and niceness. This is certainly the case with Tangled, a Disney anniversary special retelling of the story of Rapunzel.

As a baby, Rapunzel is the girl with the golden touch, or to be precise, hair. After her mother, the queen of a kingdom that rather fittingly resembles the Disney logo with its picturesque towers and steeples, falls ill during childbirth, it turns out the only way to cure her is with a magical golden flower (formed from a drop that fell from the sun – bear with me). The royal guard promptly retrieves said flower just in time and mother and baby make it through fine, with the unexpected complication that baby Rapunzel adopts the plant’s amazing abilities. Prior to the soldiers snatching the flower for the good of the kingdom however, a miserly old crone had been using it to stay forever young. Bitter and after revenge, she steals the wondrous baby with the golden, glowing locks in the dead of night. Then, tucked away in a lush green wilderness, she raises the child in a tower as her own, and sings to it instead of the flower she replaced for eternal youth. Meanwhile a kingdom mourns and the endlessly saddened royal couple release thousands of lanterns each year on their child’s birthday, in the hope that she will return home to them one day.

So far, so Disney. This is the back story to Tangled. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll have been concerned about accidentally vomiting in such a family orientated environment. Much like Marmite, you either love this sort of sentimental tale, or you hate it (although I mildly like Marmite, so does this ruin the rule?). However this background to the story is dealt with swiftly in Tangled’s opening. And it gets away with its sickly sweet, emotional mush, to such an extent that it wins you over.

If you’re a Disney sceptic, you’ll be dubiously asking how. The key to Tangled’s immense appeal is that it recognises fairytales are too sweet and sugary for some, so it gently sends up the whole tradition at times. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy the fundamental fairytale aspects, as I say the relief is only gentle, but it’s crucial and enough to make Tangled an extremely accessible movie. It’s refreshing because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite being a significant anniversary picture. It can entertain kids and adults alike with its broad range of humour and sentimental punches.

The key to the appeal for adults lies with the self-depreciating performance of male lead, Zachary Levi. His loveable rouge character, Flynn Rider, crashes into Rapunzel’s life after stealing the kingdom’s crown. Incidentally he grabs the crown in an amusing homage to Mission Impossible, lowered from the palace ceiling and later on he snatches a frying pan (used throughout as an effective weapon, with decent comic effect) as Indiana Jones would snatch his hat from beneath a closing booby trapped door. Touches of adult humour like this, alongside Levi’s well judged, constantly witty tone, provide more than enough sly, self-mocking moments to stop normal human being’s brains turning into vegetables.

This is no mean feat, given that Tangled is not just a typical Disney tale but one with random bursts of song. This sort of spontaneous, inexplicable, irrational singing is usually enough to tip most men over the edge. Whilst none of the songs from Tangled are particularly memorable, they are poignant at the right moments (and had kids dancing in the aisles occasionally). Donna Murphy, as evil Mother Gothel, delivers a charming diva like performance whenever she gets the chance to belt out a musical number. “I’ve got a dream” an ensemble piece in a seedy tavern, is heart warming and funny and stands out from the crowd, along with “I see the light”, a romantic duet between leads Levi and Mandy Moore at the emotional peak of the story, as Rapunzel’s dream of watching the floating lanterns seems to be realised. This scene is one of the best examples of the film’s startlingly vivid animation, with glowing candles fantastically rendered in the early night sky. With my secret soft spot for sentimental songs, I nearly shed a tear at the beautifully animated visuals coupled with the emotional duet.

Indeed Tangled as a whole is touching and visually captivating. There are lovely strokes of animation on the expressions of the characters, amusingly so on horse Maximus, but what strikes you most of all is the colour of the scenery. Vibrant and vivid greens and blues contrast with bright pastel colours in the city, set against a varied, but always stunning sky. The animation also allows for some distinctive action set pieces, most notably when a chase climaxes at a dam. There are gobsmacking leaps, acrobatics with endless reams of magic hair and exciting sword fights, with a frying pan, guards and a horse. But most impressive for me was the glistening water, which eventually erupts outwards in a great, mesmerising wave, chasing our hero and princess into claustrophobic confinement.

I saw Tangled in 2D and there is really no need to seek out the 3D version. It’s refreshing to see an animation go back to basics at a time of endless technological advance and reinvention. Here we just get funny, moving storytelling, that’s generally inclusive and pretty for all. From a hilarious opening montage of Rapunzel simultaneously rejoicing and hating herself for escaping her “mother’s” prison, to a heart wrenching emotional finale, Tangled has ingredients to delight everyone. It’s a pretty near perfect family movie, with bags of not only laughs but tender moments for adults too, which rest on the scripting and performance of Levi’s character Flynn Rider. My friend and I really enjoyed it, despite a disappointingly small portion of popcorn and initial doubts. Tangled will reel you in and surprise you, too, whatever your preconceptions.