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Q&A with Jerry Rothwell, director of 'Donor Unknown'

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UK-based Met Film’s enchanting documentary “Men Who Swim” — about a group of Swedish guys who face down a mid-life crisis by forming a synchronizing swimming team — made a splash at last year’s Silverdocs (pun intended.) They’re back again for this year’s fest, this time with a film that somehow manages to tackle a slightly more serious topic with the same level of compassion and laugh-out-loud humor.

Donor Unknown” is a poignant, thoughtful and hilarious look at what happens when Jeffrey, a beach bum from Venice, California suddenly finds out that in the course of donating sperm as a means to pay the rent, he has fathered dozens of children. What’s more, thanks to the exploding reach of the Internet, those children now know how to find each other.

Twenty year-old JoEllen was born via sperm donor to a loving mother who has always been open with JoEllen about how she got here. She seems happy, healthy, well adjusted — and naturally curious about her genealogy. She stumbles upon the Donor Sibling Registry and decides to take a chance. Thanks to a one-page form that her mother was given when she selected her donor, JoEllen knows basic things about her dad including his eye color, hair color and height. Most importantly, she knows his donor number. She types all of this into the registry and within a matter of months she discovers she has half siblings all over the country. JoEllen begins corresponding with them and they form strong connections. They make trips from places like Pennsylvania and New York andColorado to visit each other.

The kids see evidence of their shared lineage: the same forehead, the same big toes, the same penchant for brushing the hair out of their eyes just so. They clearly all have the same father, but they don’t know his identity.

Eventually The New York Times picks up the story, Jeffrey happens to read it and decides to reach out. The film culminates in a touching and funny reunion between JoEllen, Jeffrey and two of the other donor siblings. A pet pigeon plays a cameo to hilarious effect. Trust me when I say you just have to go see it.

UK-based Director Jerry Rothwell was on hand after the screening for a brief post-screening Q and A:

Q: Is the Donor Sibling Registry controversial? How does the industry feel about it?

JR: It’s complicated because donors decide to participate anonymously and in good faith. The registry picks away at the anonymity. The thing with sperm banks is that they’ve put a lot of thought into getting people pregnant but not about the children who are born after. This links them up.

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Q: The sperm bank system in the U.S. is largely unregulated. What’s the view of the US system from abroad?

JR: I was struck by huge, huge difference between here and the UK. You cannot donate in UK without being willing to be contacted. Women who use sperm donors in the UK report pregnancies so they can limit the number of children born to each donor. But there’s a downside to the UK system. It’s very paternalistic. For example, they have destroyed records from 20 years ago and things like that.

Q: Is Jeffrey’s life lonely?

JR: In the film you can see my point of view, which is that he is. He’s run as far away from family as possible. Being confronted with these children reminds him of life didn’t have.

Q: How did you come up with idea?

JR: Jeffrey contacted producers because he heard they wanted to do a film on sperm donors and were looking for subjects. It’s a complex question – whose story is it?

Q: How many of the families have seen the film? What’s the general reaction?

JR: There are 15 children total that we know of and of those six families have seen the film. I usually show my subjects a rough cut of the film before it goes public. Some were happy for the film to be made but didn’t want to be named or identified. That’s why you see some of the blacked out photos [in the graphics of the film].

Q: How did you get the subjects to agree to be interviewed? Were there ethical concerns about getting consent from or talking to children?

JR: We didn’t approach kids under 16. We knew that would be difficult ethically and not necessary to make the film, because many of these stories are so similar. When we did approach our subjects, it was a matter of talking people through what they’re getting into. Danielle was the only one who was ambivalent but came on board at end.

Q: Jo Ellen is a great character – how did you find her?

JR: Jo Ellen was the first to initiate the search for Jeffrey and her siblings. I talked to her for six months before we started filming. She hadn’t met Jeffrey and wanted to – it became a way to structure the film.

Q: What was Jeffrey’s reaction to the film?

JR: Happy. He says good things. We changed a few things based on his feedback. We had a long discussion about discussion about the bong scene [showing Jeffrey taking a hit of marijuana]. I didn’t want to use it but Jeffrey insisted that we use. Then he wasn’t sure, but ultimately we both agreed it should be in there.

Q: I thought it was interesting that the children wanted to meet the father even though he didn’t raise them. And I was struck by how the women in the film picked their donors based on complex set of characteristics.

JR: – Father is such an inadequate term here. Jeffrey calls himself a “fun uncle”. I think for the moms, they were looking for something familiar.

Q: How did you do sound. Did you use a boom or lav?

JR: We used both a boom and a radio mic for of our shoots. We shot for 30 days over two and a half years. But the boom is intrusive so we didn’t use it for the meeting [reunion] scene.

Postscript: “Donor Unknown won the Audience Award at Silverdocs. The film is scheduled to air on PBSIndependent Lens in October.

Ellen Essenmacher blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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