Tribeca Film Festival 2011
By Don Simpson | April 20, 2011
Director: Jerry Rothwell
All JoEllen Marsh knew about her biological father was that he was Donor 150; but she wanted to know anything and everything she could about her father’s genealogy. Thanks to a social networking website called the Donor Sibling Registry designed specifically for donor offspring, that becomes a possibility. Marsh slowly unravels Donor 150’s side of her family tree; meeting, one-by-one, her new-found siblings and discovering a plethora of uncanny genetic similarities. (Donor 150 must have had some damn strong genes!) Marsh and her siblings would like to meet the man from whom these common genes were inherited. A New York Times article about Marsh caught Donor 150’s eye, and the rest is history…
By now, director Jerry Rothwell has already introduced us to Jeffrey Harrison, an eccentric 50-something hippie who calls an RV, parked alongside Venice Beach, home. As an attractive teenager, Harrison moved to Hollywood with lofty aspirations of becoming an actor; instead he found himself posing for Playgirl, working as an erotic dancer (you know, like a Chippendale), waiting tables, hobbling together a massage business, and — last, but certainly not least — donating a shit-ton of sperm at $20 a pop. Harrison gave up his apartment and began only working as much as his overtly simplistic life required; he moved into a car, then a van, eventually working his way up to his current RV.
Harrison never married and never had [traditional] children, but his strong fatherly instinct is instantly apparent in the way he dotes upon his four dogs and injured pigeon. Harrison is an incredibly caring and peaceful person, but his zen-master free-spiritness lends him the air of a perpetual stoner. Yes, Harrison does enjoy partaking in the herbage, but he is incredibly proud of his physique (he bears a remarkable resemblance to Iggy Pop) as well. Donor 150’s offspring seem to have an inherent desire to know their genetic father; and the grounding responsibility of children might not be such a bad thing for Harrison.
Harrison certainly knew how to sow the seeds of his loins, and his story certainly will lead to countless questions regarding the ethical responsibilities of donors and sperm banks. Donor Unknown raises some real head-scratching questions, such as: What can be done to ensure the truthfulness and accuracy of donors’ biographies? Who should be permitted to donate sperm? Should there be a cap on how many babies can be made from one donor’s ejaculations?
It is difficult not to have an opinion on Harrison’s slacker-cum-hippie lifestyle. Harrison is certainly a cog in the Capitalist machine, refusing to rely upon this nation’s lifeblood (the almighty U.S. dollar) to survive. Some will praise Harrison for his off-the-grid lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, while others will mock or criticize his refusal to conform to the status quo. It is the later bunch who will certainly have a lot to say against donors like Harrison siring so many children.
At first, I questioned Rothwell’s structural decision to tell Harrison’s story parallel to the stories of his genetic kindred. By revealing Harrison as Donor 150 so early in the film, it ruins any element of surprise the plot might have otherwise possessed. I would have liked to meet Harrison at the same time Marsh does in order to share in her anticipation and surprise. Instead, Rothwell structures the narrative in such a way that we meet and learn about Harrison and his offspring individually; we observe them as they discover more and more about each other; and eventually their lives become intertwined. It is not that Rothwell’s strategy does not work; in fact, it affords Rothwell the opportunity to spend a lot of time on Harrison’s backstory. Harrison is one of those characters (like Jack Rebney from Winnebago Man and Mark Hogancamp from Marwencol) whom documentary filmmakers envision as they masturbate — I mean brainstorm — so I do not blame Rothwell for wanting to really delve into Harrison’s character, he is certainly the fruit of the loins of this film.
Donor Unknown is a profound exploration of genetics as a possible foundation for the 21st century family, and this coming at a time that the United States government is having a ridiculously difficult time defining marriage. More importantly, will the bible-thumpers in the U.S. Senate and House ever be successful in criminalizing artificial insemination? When it comes down to it, Harrison would probably be considered the anti-Christ to many of the Christian right, and Donor Unknown might just add more fuel to their tales of fire and brimstone.