Tribeca: Tell us a little about Donor Unknown, in your own words.
Jerry Rothwell: Donor Unknown
is a film about a prolific sperm donor and the children who want to find him in order to know more about themselves. It’s a comic story in some ways, but one that provokes us to question what a family is and why our biological connections are so strangely compelling.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story?
We first found out about Jeffrey [the donor] because Hilary Durman
(who is one of the film’s producers, alongside Al Morrow
of Met Film
) had been in contact with him whilst researching a drama she had made for BBC Schools about donor conception. I first met him in 2008 in his RV on Venice Beach.
Jeffrey’s a unique and charismatic character who’s lived a life on the fringe of society—which made what was already a fascinating story even more surprising. Through a bizarre set of coincidences, he and his children are dealing with age-old human dilemmas—Where do I come from? What is my connection with the past? Where are the boundaries of my family—in a uniquely modern context. I was excited about how those questions were raised for this specific group of people, connected by a single sperm donor.
Tribeca: How did you connect with your subjects? Was there any resistance, or were they eager for their story to be told?
We filmed first with Jeffrey when we were in the US for SXSW
with another film. Then we started making contact with some of his children, including Joellen, who had been the first to start looking for her donor family but still hadn’t met Jeffrey. She was feeling it was time to do that—and was willing for us to film that process—and her search gave us a structure for the film.
Once we had that shape, it made it easier to include in parallel the experiences of other children and families, and of Jeffrey. Some of Jeffrey’s children preferred not to be in the film, and we respected that. Others were happy to talk about their experiences, I think because they wanted to counter some of the mystique around donor conception.
Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?
Sometimes things became quite surreal. There was a point where we were filming in a car park on Venice Beach, with a man who lived in an RV that could only go in reverse, who had just lost his pet pigeon, but was being helped in the search by two children from his sperm donations twenty years earlier, who had only just met him for the first time, when a third sibling arrived who neither of them had ever met before. All your forward planning falls apart at moments like that. But somehow it was quite natural for the world of this film.
Tribeca: What’s the biggest thing you learned while making Donor Unknown?
Making a film always teaches you how to do it better next time—but the problem is each film throws up its own unique set of difficulties, so that knowledge comes too late! Apart from the filmmaking lessons, I think I learned something about the diversity of America.
Tribeca: Any advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
Don’t hang around waiting for someone to ask you to make a film—start making films in whatever form you can. Be prepared to change your ideas when events point you in different directions from those you expected. Ground your films in your own interpretation of what you’ve seen, and approach them with honesty: your thinking is as important as your style.
Tribeca: What are your hopes for Donor Unknown at Tribeca? What do you want audiences to take away from the story?
I hope people have a good time watching it—and that it gets them thinking about where the technology of reproduction might be taking us and what this means for our sense of connection to our biological relatives. And also about how sometimes those, like Jeffrey, who seem most outside society, are its pioneers.
A surprising number of people who’ve come to see the film are either donor conceived themselves, have donated sperm, or are contemplating IVF [in vitro fertilization] using a donor. Some have said the film gave them the impetus to look for their own donor, or changed the way they thought about whether they would tell their unborn child about their donor—so I’m glad that the film rings true for people with experiences of those issues.
Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
Probably Werner Herzog
. But I would take a long spoon.
Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?
Jerry Rothwell: Jonathan Coe
’s biography of British experimental writer BS Johnson: Like A Fiery Elephant
Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?
‘Jerry the Movie?’ (suggested—with a dismissive laugh—by my partner) ‘He should have had more Chinese pirates in his films.’ (suggested by my daughter).
Tribeca: It’s terrific that Donor Unknown will be available to such a wide audience via the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival [make a reservation now!]. What makes Donor Unknown a Tribeca must-see?
It’s funny, it touches on big issues about technology and humanity and—as well as the enchanting Jeffrey and his children—it features several dogs, millions of sperm, and a pigeon.
Find out where and when Donor Unknown
is playing at the Festival.
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