Donor Unknown (2010) charts the seemingly unique story of 20-year-old JoEllen Marsh and her burning curiosity to know more about her anonymous donor father. After discovering an online registry which connects donor-conceived children, she manages to track down a half-sister in New York and a further 12 half-siblings from across the United States. Jerry Rothwell’s film is about identity, genetic inheritance and the family of the future. It highlights the connections made between the children and their donor dad and raises questions about society’s understanding of parenthood and the strange power of our genetic connections.
Donor Unknown is both funny and moving and feels like a documentary that has been shot in the twee style of 2007 comedy, Juno with its indie music, eccentric characters and sometimes brazen dialogue. The manner in which it coveys love and parenthood is hilarious yet there is something tragic about the situation involving JoEllen’s father, Jeffrey: the advent of fatherhood appears to be highlighting cracks in the cool exterior he tries so hard to convey evoking shame, and at times pride begins to take over.
Rothwell’s documentary is a sensitive portrayal of this uniquely modern family, emphasising the bizarre nature of the familial relationships that may exist more commonly in the future whilst also illustrating that fondness and bonds can still exist regardless of such clinical and distant family life. Each member of the growing 150 family is on a journey of discovery that opens up some fascinating questions about nature and nurture, the responsibilities of parenthood, the moral integrity of the cryobanks, and the hazards of genetic inheritance and begs its audience to acknowledge the changing face of family life.
The film is a snapshot of a group of people who are all pioneers. The parents – heterosexual, gay, single and in couples – were determined to have children against the odds, and happened to choose the same sperm donor. Now they’re living with the unpredictable consequences of their choice whilst their children go on to meet the man who until now they have only known as a number – what effect will it have on all of their futures?