Donor Unknown is a documentary, directed by Jerry Rothwell, whose themes branch out as it progresses. Essentially, it follows an artificially inseminated girl, JoEllen Marsh, as she tracks down her biological half-siblings who were conceived by the sperm of the same man. After finding her siblings, she decides to track down and meet her biological father.
Donor Unknown begins as an odyssey undertaken by JoEllen to find out ‘who she is’ genetically. As it develops however, it becomes equally a character study of her sperm donor dad, Jeffrey Harrison. Living in a broken-down caravan in L.A.’s bohemian Venice Beach with four dogs and a wounded pigeon, he is a hippie and a loner; describing himself as a ‘beach bum’ on the fringes of society. Yet, despite his misguided outlook on life, he is sympathetic.
The strongest theme to emerge from Donor Unknown is, expectedly, that of nature vs. nurture. When the donor siblings get together, it’s fascinating to hear some of the common characteristics they share, such as a passion for dance and music, and warming to see their common personality traits. It is also apparent, however, that the children all come from loving families, and that this is what ultimately defines them. Be they single women or same-sex couples, the kids’ parents all seem desperately lucky to be living in an age where they can have children without a heterosexual partner.
In contrast, Jeffrey recalls the alcohol-fuelled arguments between his parents with an apparent distance, but one can’t help feeling that his drop-out lifestyle is a reaction against his authoritarian, military father. As such, the film questions whether genetic identity means much beyond the superficial. It also suggests that parents of donor children perhaps value their children more than in ‘conventional’ families because of the very fact that they’re a gift from science, rather than an inevitability of nature.
Donor Unknown also gives glimpses into the workings of the industry, revealing a disturbing lack of control in some areas. In one example there are over 50 children coming from a single donor. Equally disturbing is how much control prospective parents have over the features of their donor, with one bank even offering their clients the option to pick celebrity look-alike donors.
Rothwell does well to avoid the film becoming too much of a family drama by raising questions over certain areas of the sperm donation industry that need addressing. But such questions are inevitable in what is still a burgeoning industry, and Donor Unknown paints an optimistic, rather than idealistic, picture about the new kind of relationships that can emerge from the potentially world-changing science of artificial insemination.