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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