Donor Unknown tells the story of JoEllen and the matrix of half – siblings she meets on a journey of self – discovery to find, and come to terms with their titular stoner donor, Jeffrey. The jumbled group of disparate individuals form an extremely alternative family anchored by their knowledge of joint paternity from Donor 150, all of which is made possible by the Donor Sibling Registry. An online donor matching service where one can find and be found by half brother and sisters of the same male donation. This emotional connection that develops and stretches between the new found siblings is heart-warming and wonderfully weird, an ever growing familial diaspora existing as a razor blade for the traditional values of the nuclear and the static.
Genealogical issues of identity and nature run through the feature and are shown very much to be both parallel and dependant. Here the classic discussion of nature versus nurture is thrown out the window with the ever present feeling of all on screen that their present and future is inextricably tied to their past. The discomfort that this past is shrouded, indeed unknown, makes it all the more profound in the half – sibling’s lives and hope and expectation is layered into Jeffrey on the part of those he has inadvertently fathered. Jeffrey’s characteristics, hobbies, even employment are decided ahead of time on the understanding that he must in some way be an ascendant version of their descent from him. In one stand out scene images of Jeffrey and a multitude of the siblings are juxtaposed artfully to evoke exact comparisons of characteristics and mannerisms without ever having seen or mimicked nurtured behaviour.
What is most interesting is the amplification of need onto Jeffrey himself. Those that are experiencing troubles themselves are quick to turn to the romantic ideal of Jeffrey and a need for both meaning and comfort there. What’s tackled here, if not explicitly, is the notion that possibly there is a distortion of the natural order of things in the alienation of sperm donation, and that the siblings groping and clamouring towards an idea, and in turn reality of Jeffrey, is a direct fulfilment of a natural need for both father and mother, two sides of a lineage that should both be transparent.
The reality of Jeffrey, however, is somewhat unexpected given the weight of possibility heaped on his shoulders. With each sibling having a different version of the man himself it is ironic and perhaps fitting that Jerry doesn’t fit any category at all. A Venice Beach veteran of living alternatively he is the opposite, at least in vocation, that many of the siblings have imagined him. Nevertheless the siblings enjoy the romantic ideal that Jeffrey represents but, as one sibling states, do not feel they will be coming to him with any father – son issues, it’s just nice to know he’s there.
This leads to the most poignant and jarring provocation of the feature itself; the responsibility of sperm banks, and even though the film doesn’t push the point, the responsibility of Jeffrey himself in his excessive donations. Giving up to four times a week for eight years, is Jeffrey abusing a system, and are the sperm banks complicit in his abuse? After all he now has twenty or so children knocking on his door and is in no position to provide them all either with expectations met or time given. With such a relatively new phenomenon coming under inspection what’s the moral code of practice in sperm donation? It might have been a quick buck for Jeffrey at the time but twenty years later a horde of children are encountering issues of identity, purpose, past and future and are finding it necessary to pacify and reconcile these needs through meeting and understanding the nature of Jeffrey himself.
Donor Unknown’s visual style is interesting and exhibits well juxtaposed realities. Jeffrey’s Venice Beach idealistic getaway is shown in stark contrast to the suburban reality of the sibling’s homes. As well the sterility and frozen atmosphere of the sperm bank is contrasted with the happy faces and voiceovers of a warm and loving family made possible by the icy heart of this suspect sinister business, thus attempting to scrub away the taboo nature of the sperm banks themselves.
Don’t sacrifice this feature for virtue of the recent The Kids Are Alright, as it is easy to privilege the scripted over the real, for Donor Unknown, although lacking the theatrical drama of the former, is inherently both more captivating and more nuanced in its portrayal of the implications of the sperm trade. Indeed with a sperm loaded Fed Ex van in imitation of nature’s one child per stalk what are the implications of such a massive dearth of father figures and natural two sided ancestry. Perhaps though it still falls for investing too much respect and care for the characters of the documentary themselves and not enough in the big, quite challenging, moralistic questions still being hammered out in the hearts and minds of all involved.
While the ending might appear unresolved and the family situation never reconciled it actually quite perfectly grasps the open ended nature of the extended family itself, and shows, just as with Jeffrey and his own father that family affairs sometimes never receive total closure.