Interview with director Jerry Rothwell on Donor Unknown

This is the full transcript of the interview I did with documentary maker Jerry Rothwell for Don’t Panic, very nice man he was too and a very good film which should definitely be seen:

JoEllen Marsh, Jerry Rothwell and Danielle Pagano at the Tribeca premiere of Donor Unknown.

Jerry Rothwell has previously brought us such critically acclaimed documentaries as Heavy Load and Deep Water. His new documentary looks at donor conception through the quest JoEllen Marsh initiates to find out about her donor, known to her as Donor 150. Along the way she discovers a website which connects her  to 13 siblings from the same donor across America, the first connection resulting in a  New York Times article. An article their unconventional donor, Jeffrey Harrison- a hippy living on Venice beach in a dilapidated RV with his coterie of animals- sees and which prompts him to give up his anonymity and forge new relationships with his biological children. The result is a film that highlights contemporary issues of genetics, identity, family and the ethics of sperm donation, and is genuinely insightful, funny and touching. Don’t Panic talks to director Jerry Rothwell  about the issues the film raises and his approach  to the story.

What first drew you to filming this story?

I’m  always looking for a very specific situation but one which might throw light on much bigger issues. What I was really interested in was a how a group of people were trying to find a new set of relationships, brought about by technology-the ability to contact each other over the internet, but also by the technology of reproduction. There’s a very a tight story around wonder and the offspring that come about because of [Jeffrey’s] donations.

 How did you convince the producer, Hilary Durman, that it could be made as a film when it was originally going to be a radio documentary?

I think the difficultly she worried about is the issue of privacy and the question of whose story is it? The story probably belongs to about 30 people, and how do you get consent from all those people for a film to be made, which gets into some quite private issues. Then we started talking to the different families and they started talking to each-other  and then that was the really the way we got it going.

What were the siblings reactions to having a documentary made about them?

They’d  done a certain amount of media before because, they did the New York Times article. And I think  JoEllen’s motivation for doing it was to raise awareness about donor conception, that her story is like a lot of other people’s stories and to encourage people to look for their donor if they wanted  too, that it was possible and it wasn’t necessarily scary.


The film raises a lot of questions about identity, which is a theme in your previous documentary Heavy Load as well, is this a theme that particularly interests you?

Yeah, the question of how people define themselves is maybe something I’m interested in, and I think the thing they have in common also is something about masculinity which interests me. It’s not that I sit down and think that that’s the kind of issues that I want to do, it’s more that if someone tells me a story the things I see in it are not going to be the same things that someone-else sees.  You have to go with the things you’re interested in and I was interested in Jeffrey as much as I was interested in the children. I was more interested in this man who’d run as far away from family as you could go, who was suddenly confronted by  a kind of family and what that meant.

 Having got a lot of Jeffrey’s story in the film, how much do you identify with Jeffrey and how much do you hope the audience will identify with Jeffrey?

 [laughs] Well I think every-one must identify at some level with getting into a van and heading off to the west coast! There’s certainly things about Jeffrey’s experience that I like and I recognise and I think a lot of people recognise, and I think his kids really recognise themselves in him. I think the task of a documentary is interesting because you can both portray someone from the outside but you can also portray to a certain extent their thoughts and what motivates them. So you’re seeing them how others see them,  but you’re also trying to see them as they see themselves and in Jeffrey those two things play off each other, because other people have strong opinions about him. You hopefully in the film get to learn more about him and understand and emphasise with him.

Do you think there’s a danger of some people writing him off as an eccentric old hippie and loner for example, or do you think most people can see past that like JoEllen does?

 People respond to him differently, some people are really irritated by him at least at the beginning of the film. I think there was one review that said ‘if you don’t like Californian feelings-speak, vast swathes of this film are going to turn you off.” I think what’s interesting  is I’m not agreeing with Jeffrey necessarily about his view on the world, but I’m trying to show it in a way which gives him enough credit to explain it as possible.

He comes across as an essentially decent person.

 Yeah I think he is.

Editing places quite a big role in the tone of the film, for example when JoEllen talks about imagining her dad as an actor etc then you cut to the reality of Jeffrey living in a broken down RV which is both funny & sad, how important is editing to you?

I think documentaries are selective. You’re using real sounds and images of events that aren’t set up for the camera, but then you’re combining them into a context that set off thought processes in an audience or are part of a story.  And especially in a film where’s there’s no narration, one of the ways you make meaning is by banging against each other, juxtaposing things that are really different. Also I think it was a film that because Jeffrey’s sperm made its way to lots of different corners of America, it gave itself to cross-cutting between different experiences that were quite similar. But just the fact of the number of different experiences is part of what the film’s about, so that’s why the cross-cutting and the editing happens.

Were you aware of trying to keep a balance between the humorous and serious in the tone of the film?

Yeah it’s not something I plot out in advance, I don’t think ‘now we need a funny moment’ but it’s more that certain scenes have certain characteristics. And I think humour is definitely important, it’s one way in which an audience can engage with the film, when you watch a film the moment when a whole audience laughs there’s a connection.

Do you think a film like The Kids Are Alright has opened the way to making people more interested in contemporary biological issues and so more interested in a film like yours?

 I haven’t seen The Kids Are Alright partly just because I try to avoid watching something about the same subject as what I’m making in case I end up copying them [laughs]. But I think biomedical science is the thing that’s most going to change our world in our lifetimes, what’s happening in biology is so much bigger then what’s happening in social media. But I think what’s happening in biology is really going to change our sense of who we are. So I think there is going to be much more discussion about what that means, because our understanding of it really lags behind the science, our ability to society to think through the ethical issues of it are way behind the science of it.

The film seems to question the morality of what companies like the Cryobank are doing in terms of making profits from getting as much sperm out as possible without regard to the consequences, do you think there should be more regulations in place and if so what?

 I think the situation in the UK is really different, it’s much more regulated. America being America it’s much more left up to commercial forces. I think the California Cryobank is pretty responsible in what it does on the whole but it’s primary concern, as Wendy from the Donor Sibling Registry [website] pointed out, is not children. It’s primary concern is about enabling people to get pregnant, so inevitably it’s not necessarily prioritise the  needs of the kids once they’re born and I think that is a problem. The way the UK has gone, which is to say that if you donate sperm or an egg you need to be willing to be contacted by your offspring, I think is the right way of going.

 How has being a British filmmaker impacted this documentary which is set in the US?

 Partly it’s quite difficult. The film I made before, Heavy Load, was about a bunch of people who lived ten miles away from me, this film they live 4,000 miles away which means a really different kind of filming. You’re trying to get to know someone really quickly on the same day that your filming with them and especially an intimate story like this that gets quite difficult. But at the same time to be filming a story about the states it’s interesting to be an outsider, because you see things that people within the culture don’t see because you notice them in a way that they don’t notice them anymore. So in some ways  it positions you in a good place to make a film, in some ways it is a film about America, and it’s about American ideas about family and connections.

Without the internet these relationships could never have been made, how do you feel about the role of the internet in forging these new connections?

 I think there’s a convergence of two types of technology [in the film], there’s the technology of reproduction and there’s the  technology that enables people to get in contact with each other. Without either one of them the situation in the film wouldn’t happen. I think the idea of anonymity  these days is a difficult, if you got somebody’s birthday and the state they were born in you can probably trace them, so that scenario is definitely changing .

What were you thoughts and on the relationships of the siblings and their uncanny common characteristics?

 Yeah, obviously physically they’re quite similar but there were these little traits-like there’s a moment in the film where one of them says ‘the way we do this’ [tucks hair back] so I just started looking through the rushes to find moments when they brush their hair across their ear, and there were loads of them so I cut them together. And I’d say there are similarities in character between them all.

How hard was it to film all the siblings living in different parts of the US?

It  just meant that we didn’t get a lot of time because your budget’s limited so I would’ve liked to have spent more time with Rochelle’s story, the film can only take a certain amount of characters and places anyway. I think once I knew that JoEllen wanted to meet Jeffrey and was willing to have that filmed her story became the centre of the film. Before that we spent quite a lot of time going to the different families in Memphis and Colorado.

Do you think you’ll ever be persuaded to make a feature film or is documentary the only genre you want to work in?

I love making documentaries, because I like the fact that you’re not just making your a film, the film has an impact. This film generates a lot of discussions about donor conception that are really interesting  and lots of people come up and say ‘I’m now going to look for my donor ‘ or ‘it’s made me think about IVF differently.’ So I like that aspect of documentary that’s working with real people’s lives and telling their stories. But I would also be interested in working on a film that had a documentary feel .

What is it about documentaries, any that particularly inspired you ?  

I watch a lot of docs and the people whose docs are like at the moment, there’s some British filmmakers like Morgan Matthews, Daisy Athgar, Mark Isaacs whose films are really like , I’ve got a very broad taste in films.

What’s your next projects?

Well it’s about a village in Ethiopia that has produced a lot of world champion long distance runners, it’s about two girls in that village who at the start of the film are 13 and who want to  be runners and I’ve been filming them since 2008, it’s now three years later and the film takes them through that process of trying to become runners. So it’s really a film about an Ethiopian childhood or adolescence seen through the lens of running.


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