Staff Recommendation: Donor Unknown

Cornerhouse Visual Arts Programme Manager Bren O’Callaghan reviews Donor Unknown.

Sperm. It’s everywhere. But before you rush for a mop and bucket, I’m referring to Lisa Cholodenko’s recent indie hit The Kids Are All Right, in which the two children of a same-sex female couple track down their source tadpole factory on legs, and, erm… Demon Seed. Because home computers need sweet lovin’ too. Granted, treatments of this topic are few and far between, but with Donor Unknown, what at first appears to be a potentially voyeuristic route of enquiry becomes far more satisfying and life-affirming.

JoEllen Marsh, a young, confident and charismatic woman from Pennsylvania, has always known that she was conceived by artificial insemination. The child of lesbian parents, JoEllen makes an immediately likeable figure to follow upon her journey as she decides to try and trace her ‘father’, a misleading and unsatisfactory label for a chilled postal delivery from the California Cryobank listed only as Donor 150. After all, this man never intended to fulfill the role of a responsible guardian and didn’t expect anyone to attempt to trace him years afterwards, so could hardly be accused of abandonment. It was years before JoEllen would receive notification of a match… not yet of her parent, but a half-sibling. A story on JoEllen and her newly discovered sister in The New York Times resulted in another sibling coming forward, then another, creating a snowball effect until a new, unheard-of family begins to discover each other: born of one absent male but many mothers, into different backgrounds and under diverse circumstances.

There is a palpable sense of a shared genetic heritage as the individuals compare foreheads, eyebrows and interests, while it will still surprise you that they look, sound and behave like siblings (even to the extend of sub-pairings emerging). Most astonishing of all are the bonds of family that shoot forth vines and blossom, revealing a deep human need to connect, to belong and to identify aspects of ourselves in others. What does it mean to be a parent? How do we interpret family? What will be the true impact of the gene pool being manipulated in this way, especially when it seems apparent that limitations upon the amount of donations made by a single individual are not being limited – despite assurances otherwise? Donor Unknown grafts a beating heart to scientific debate, and contrary to what you might expect, has plenty to say to those of us born of known lineage.

As for Donor 150 himself, he is the undoubted star of this touching documentary by British filmmaker Jeffrey Rothwell. Formerly a handsome male model and dancing Chippendale, he is revealed to be an aging new-age eccentric, living inside a ramshackle truck in an LA car park with his beloved dogs, a crippled pigeon and encroaching filth. Far from being a pitiable figure, his child-like naïveté, generosity of spirit and lack of material desire teach us that the child within has as much need of love and assurance as the adults we become.