Jerry Rothwell’s new film Donor Unknown focuses on the personal story behind the sperm industry. It is a sentimental journey following JoEllen Marsh and her ever growing family of half sybllings. It is a wonderfully engaging look at a diverse and rapidly expanding industry and ahead of their premiere on Friday night I was fortunate enough to get some time to interview them about the project.
Alright Jerry and JoEllen?
[Jerry Rothwell] I’m good thankyou.
[JoEllen Marsh]I’m fine, thanks, nice to meet you.
This film seemed to take a sort of ambiguous stance on a lot of the issues that surround it, presenting the facts, and the stories but not forcing a message, was that a conscious decision?
[Jerry] Well… It was a very particular story and I don’t think you can tell that particularly well if you try to make a message film. So… for me it was about finding the different layers in the story. For example there’s the layer about the families themselves and JoEllen, and then there’s the layer about Jeffrey and his world and what he’s doing and then there’s the layer about the industry.
That was a really interesting element because you tell the story of what is a really sentimental journey, but it has a corporate undercurrent, was there a temptation to focus on the dirtier side of the industry?
[Jerry] Its not really an investigation into the sperm donation industry, its not really that type of film, it sort of explores those issues through a set of personal relationships, and individual experiences. I did though, I wanted people to be conscious of that all the time, and that’s why the film ends the way it does, because I’d like you to be leaving the cinema thinking about that juxtaposition of the personal stories and the industry that underpins it. But I don’t think there’s place in the film to start, you know, drafting in ethical experts without destroying the heart of it which is JoEllen’s story.
The film seems to be shot through an optimistic lens, capturing the good sides of characters before perhaps also showing the shadier aspects, none more so than with Jeffrey what was your impression of him and his idiosyncracies on your first meeting?
[JoEllen] I mean Jeffrey really is that sweet guy that really comes across, but the other parts of him are just like, so laughable, but that’s just him you know.
This film seems to be a bit of an outreach to prospective sybllings have you heard anything further since its release?
[JoEllen] No, not yet, but maybe that’ll happen.
Because you’ve been raised separately do you find it easier to relate to your sybllings as friends or family members?
[JoEllen] It depends on the sibling actually, I mean my relationship with Danielle the first one I found is definately closer than with a lot of the others, we’re very close, but it depends on what the sibling is interested in, you know, we all do get along, but some people are busier than others, and some people aren’t as interested… despite being raised separately though, we do you know, have a lot in common.
Nature and Nurture its a big argument at the centre of the film without really being discussed what was your approach to that debate?
[Jerry] Yeh I mean trying to distinguish between Nature and Nurture is like trying to unbake a cake. But… in terms of the film making side of it… it lent itself to cross cutting between all these different people, so like for example, when Ryann says that they all brush their hair aside, I began to trawl through the rushes to look for those moments and sure enough there were times when they all did do it.
When did you get involved with this project?
[Jerry] I think we first started thinking about it in 2007, which was probably a couple of years after the New York Times article that brought JoEllen and Danielle together, and a year after, because then there was a year before Jeffrey came forward and so quite a lot of the siblings had met each other and some of them had met Jeffrey. When we started to make the film it seemed like a retrospective story, but when we started talking to JoEllen, she had been the first to look for Jeffrey and her sybllings but she actually hadn’t yet met him, and really wanted to.
So all the footage that was captured was real, it was the first time that you had met him? How was it having a camera there.
[JoEllen] Yeh, I mean it was fine, well I mean it was awkward anyway. So having a camera was… I mean as long as I had sometime afterwards to meet him and have some real conversation, that was all I really wanted.
There are lots of parallels in this film particularly personal parallels was that something you were aware of beforehand for example the Dancing?
[Jerry] You couldn’t plan for it. I mean, JoEllen’s mum had given me a number of home movies beforehand and amongst them were images of JoEllen dancing, and I mean you [JoEllen] had talked of wondering where your dancing had come from in the family hadn’t you?
[JoEllen] Yeh, well I sort of knew that no one in my mum’s family was ever a dancer or in the theatre or anything like that, so my Gran would always say that must have come from my Dad’s side and really if you look at Jeffrey that is probably where it comes from.
In one moment your Mum states you never had a father but you had a “Donor” was that a difficult concept to get your head around as a child?
[JoEllen] You know I think kids understand a lot more than you give them credit for. Kids understand everything if you give them enough time. We talked about things in the beginning, and my Mum just described it in basic terms, but I think I learnt more when they described it to their friends who had never heard the story before.
What was Jeffrey’s response to the film?
[Jerry] I always show rough cuts to people in the film before they’re public so I put them online, or actually I think I sent him a DVD, and yeah, he seemed, Yeh he’s pretty happy.
Are you still in touch?
[JoEllen] Yes, I mean whenever he is near a computer, which, as you can imagine isn’t all that often.
What are you working on next?
[Jerry] I’ve just finished shooting a film about two girls in an Ethiopian village. And the village has got this incredible track record of producing world champion long distance runners, and these are two thirteen year olds who want to follow in their heroes footsteps. We’ve filmed them since 2008 as they’ve grown up through their adolescence, but its a film about… sort of adolescence but through the lens of running.
To coincide with the Olympic Games?
[Jerry] Well the idea, yeah, I mean I’ve had a good amount of time to make it, with the deadline of yeah… the Olympics, though it’ll probably be saturated with films about running then.
And how about you JoEllen? Whats next in your search?
[JoEllen] Its really more passive than an active search, you put your details on a website and wait for responses but, I’m actually studying abroad in Jordan at the moment.
Donor Unknown will be released in selected cinemas from June 3rd 2011 and on DVD on 4th July 2011. It will also screen on More4 on June 28th 2011
The Good Review would like to say a big thank you to Jerry and JoEllen for taking the time to answer our questions, we wish them all the very best with the film.