Director Jerry Rothwell’s 2010 film Donor Unknown has its final Docfest screening tonight at 5pm at the Shattuck. It tells the story of 20-year-old JoEllen Marsh, a Pennsylvania girl with two mommies who’s always wanted to learn about her biological father, an anonymous sperm bank donor, whom she knows as “Donor 150.”
Through a website for the biological children of sperm donors, JoEllen finds her New York half-sister Danielle, and their story getting covered in the New York Times. It comes to the attention of Jeffrey Harrison, who lives alone in an RV with four dogs and a pigeon in California…. and once upon a time, was the hard-up-for-cash Donor 150. As it turns out, Jeffrey Harrison fathered more than a dozen children through his donations, a few of whom he is already in touch with. Two of them, the aforementioned JoEllen and 19-year-old Fletcher, make a pilgrimage to meet Jeffrey, and it becomes clear that the down-and-out Jeffrey is taking a brave step most anonymous donors never take.
It’s an intoxicating film because of the way in which it tweaks the very idea of parenthood, chosen family, biological family. Along the way, it hits hard on the inheritance of genetic diseases and what that means for donor anonymity laws that might conceivably place a donor-conceived child in grave danger — unable to undergo screening for diseases like cancer, where a genetic predisposition is inherited and early screening might save someone’s life.
By its very nature, Donor Unknown is an assemblage of totally random characters. That’s what makes it such a fascinating Erector Set of a movie. If you’ve never thought about what it might mean to be the child of someone you’ve never known, or to parent a child you have no intention of ever knowing, well…this film smacks you hard in the face with what that means, with scenes that cut to the core of the subject’s self-perceptions.
Donor Unknown opens the floodgates on a discussion that redefines family and will leave you puzzling long after the credits have rolled.