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.

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54th BFI London Film Festival-Shungu: The Resilience Of A People (2009), Dir. Saki Mafundikwa

Rating: 4/10

Shungu is the first feature documentary by Saki Mafundikwa; a renowned Zimbabwean graphic designer and educator. The film came out of frustration with Zimbabwe’s terrible economic situation and a desire to show the world what exactly is happening in Zimbabwe, now that the mainstream media seems to have lost interest. Thus the film sets out to show the aftermath of the long queues for bread, empty shelves and political violence, and show Zimbabwe’s long term suffering.

This is done by focusing on the stories of people in Zimababwe who represent the struggle, frustration and determination of the Zimbabwean people, embodying the title Shungu which means all these things. So we learn about the lives of a 30-something metalsmith and opposition supporter trying to keep his business going amidst government supporters attacking and threatening him and his family, and people stealing his equipment or not paying him.

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Interview with Andrew Thompson, co-director of award-winning documentary Mugabe and the White African

Andrew Thompson with his partner and co-director Lucy Bailey

Andrew Thompson is co-director alongside partner Lucy Bailey of Mugabe and The White African, the only documentary made inside Zimbabwe since Robert Mugabe passed a total press ban (which is only now starting to be lifted). The documentary, nominated for a BAFTA and winner of the British Independent Film Awards, was filmed covertly on and off for 12 months under dangerous conditions. It tells the story of one white farmer Mike Campbell and his family’s attempts to legally challenge Mugabe’s racist land reforms, which aim to take away land from the white farmers and re-distribute it to poor black people, but which actually give the land to Mugabe’s supporters. Here Andrew Thompson talks about the challenges of filming in Zimbabwe, the absurdity of Mugabe’s land reforms, the importance of the film in raising awareness, the determination of the Campbell family and why he loves documentaries amongst other things.  

What brought you to make a film in Zimbabwe and were the issues there something you were always fully aware of?   

We were aware of the situation in Zimbabwe obviously from press reports and things we’d seen in the news and Lucy Bailey had spent a lot of time filming in Africa. And we were actually filming in Beitbridge in South Africa, which is the main land bridge between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and we saw hundreds and hundreds of Zimbabwean refugees trying to get over the border to South Africa. It was really at that point that we thought there is surely a story to be told somewhere about the catastrophe happening inside Zimbabwe. So we were aware of the story, but as filmmakers you’re looking for a way in, you’re looking for a way of telling that story. And it was in talking to friends in South Africa that we heard about the extraordinary case of one white farmer, Mike Campbell, challenging Robert Mugabe in an international court. So Lucy and I looked at one another and said ‘that’s our story, that’s it, that’s the way we’ll be able to tell the much wider story of what’s going on in Zimbabwe.’ It’s a  very raw, very intimate, very personal story of one man challenging the President in an international court. So ourselves, we’re not South African, we’re not Zimbabwean and we have no connections in those countries. It’s just an interesting story and an important story to tell as well.  

Do you think the story is something that people are generally unaware about or only know small details about ?  

Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean I think, certainly around election time, Zimbabwe gets a lot of press. But I think as a filmmaker who wants to make a theatrical film you need a lot more than just shots of destitute black farm workers or white farmers having their farm disputed. You need a story and what was great about the court case is that it gave us a natural backbone through which to tell the story. Lucy and I very much come from a background of Comic Relief appeal films and in those films you’re often telling quite difficult complex stories. Films about child prostitution  or malaria or infant mortality, you’re telling really quite heavy stories and you’ve only got three minutes to tell them. Our challenge as filmmakers was can we sustain the emotional intensity of a three minute appeal film over a 90 minute feature film. And we do that in Comic Relief by getting an audience to identify with one or two characters and really care about those individuals. That’s the way we like to tell our stories. So in a Comic Relief film through one or two characters they get to learn about the wider issues and that’s the way we approached this film. Through Mike Campbell you get to learn a much wider story, the complexities of the land reform issue and what’s going on inside Zimbabwe.  

I think with news reports it’s also easy to distance yourself from the issues so it’s more interesting to have someone to relate to in your film.  

I think so, I think an audience watches the film an identifies with the film at a  very human level. It’s the emotions which go through an audience with the family. Now if you’re watching  a news report  there’s not enough time to get to know the characters  or to understand what drives those characters. I think what our film does is it engages an audience that perhaps doesn’t even know where Zimbabwe is on a map and doesn’t know anything about the political situation. It’s a film that’s been very successful in bringing a much wider audience to the situation inside Zimbabwe.  

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