Review: ‘Donor Unknown’

'Donor Unknown'

Moving without being sappy or trite, docu "Donor Unknown" follows a young woman conceived with donated sperm who tracks down her biological father and enough half-siblings to form a football team.

Moving without being sappy or trite, docu “Donor Unknown” follows a young woman conceived with donated sperm who tracks down her biological father and enough half-siblings to form a football team. Nicely lensed and well directed by Brit helmer Jerry Rothwell, pic tells a compelling story with wry humor. “Donor” should be disseminated further on the fest and ancillary circuits and could even make it into limited distribution — especially if it benefits from the subject’s broad-brush similarity to that of the recent indie hit “The Kids Are All Right,” although the two pics have very different outcomes.

Pretty, confident teenager JoEllen Marsh, from Lake Eerie, Penn., explains that she was always aware that she was conceived via a donation to a sperm bank in California. All she knew about her father was that he was a “dancer” interested in philosophy and spiritual matters, according to the profile the bank supplied, in which he was listed as Donor 150. But this was enough information to track down a half-sibling, Danielle Pagano of New York, through the online Donor Sibling Registry.

Their story made it into the New York Times in 2005, and that publicity coaxed at least a dozen more half-siblings to come forward, most of whom are now in regular contact with one other, endlessly fascinated by their own physical and psychological similarities, and feel an undeniable sense of kinship.

Intercut with the various half-siblings’ stories, a second strand introduces Donor 150 himself, a 52-year-old hippie named Jeffrey Harrison who lives in a camper in Venice Beach with a menagerie of animals (he takes his injured pigeon for “play dates” with other wild birds). Turns out Harrison donated more than 500 times in the late ’80s and early ’90s, during which time he was a male stripper (hence the “dancer” description). Now an affable ne’er-do-well who does bong hits for breakfast, he’s open to meeting some of the children he sired.

Helmer Rothwell, who’s made such classy docs for Brit TV as “Heavy Load” and “Deep Water,” has a knack for getting others to open up. He also knows when not to cut out a telling detail, even when it superficially slows down the action, such as a revealing moment when meticulous sperm-bank CEO Cappy Rothman pauses mid-sentence to wipe a smudge off a glass. Although docu’s narrative is told in a relatively straightforward way, Rothwell allows enough room for his subjects to become characters while keeping the running time brisk throughout.

Without taking sides, pic touches lightly on the debate surrounding donor-inseminated children trying to track down their biological fathers. Unsurprisingly, several parents here, particularly lesbian couple Sue Norris and Cathy Fletcher, express anxiety about their kids’ search for blood relations beyond the nuclear families they’ve formed, and the founder of the Donor Sibling Registry is critical of how sperm banks manage their data. However, the underlying note struck is one of awe at a brave new world that’s created such extended family structures.

Fine, folksy, acoustic guitar-based score by Max de Wardener hits all the right notes but ever intrudes. Other tech credits are pro throughout.

Donor Unknown



A Met Film, Redbird presentation of an Arte GEIE, More4 production in association with VPRO, with the support of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, Cinereach, Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, the Wellcome Trust, Naked Edge Films. (International sales: Met Film Prod., London.) Produced by Al Morrow, Hilary Durman. Executive producers, Jonny Persey. Co-producer, Stewart Le Marechal. Directed by Jerry Rothwell.


Camera (color, HD), Rothwell; editor, Alan MacKay; music, Max de Wardener; sound, Rob Branch; sound designer, Vincent Watts. Reviewed online, Amsterdam, Nov. 21, 2010. (In Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam; Sheffield Documentary Film Festival.) Running time: 76 MIN.


Jeffrey Harrison, JoEllen Marsh, Danielle Pagano, Fletcher Norris, Rochelle Longest, Ryann McQuilton, Roxanne Shaffer, Cappy Rothman, Lucinda Marsh, Joy Longest, Sue Norris, Cathy Fletcher.

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