Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | “Donor Unknown” Director Jerry Rothwell

Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Donor Unknown" Director Jerry Rothwell
Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Donor Unknown" Director Jerry Rothwell

JoEllen Marsh grew up knowing her father only as Donor 150. As one of the first generation of children conceived through donor insemination, she yearns for connection with potential siblings, and turns to the Internet to track them down. As JoEllen slowly broadens her family tree, in the process she forges a fascinatingly modern model of family. After connecting with dozens of siblings across the country, JoEllen decides it’s finally time to seek out Donor 150. [Synopsis courtesy of The Tribeca Film Festival]

“Donor Unknown”
Primary Cast: Jeffrey Harrison, JoEllen Marsh, Danielle Pagano, Fletcher Norris, Rachelle Longest, Ryann McQuilton, Roxanne Shaffer
Director(s): Jerry Rothwell
Producer(s): Hilary Durman, Al Morrow
Executive Producer: Jonny Persey, Jim Butterworth
Co-Producer: Naked Edge Films
Outreach Producer: Karen Gilchrist
Editor: Alan Mackay
Composer: Max De Wardener
Consultant Producer: Daniel J Chalfen

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

Responses courtesy of “Donor Unknown” director Jerry Rothwell

Looking for an engaged audience…

My dad’s accident-prone screenings of Super 8 home movies were I guess what first made me feel how film could transform events into this curious mixture of emotion and evidence. Then, much later, a course in film analysis at university helped me understand to power film has to make meanings that have an impact on the world. Afterwards I trained briefly in news, but soon left that to use video in community-based work, where it seemed to me there was more potential for the filmmaking I was interested in, which explored people’s authorship of their own stories and which tended to be distributed to very specific audiences/communities where they had a great impact (a bit like the internet perhaps!).

I worked as a community artist using video for 15 years and learned a lot that’s been helpful in my documentary making – from how to produce good results from minimal equipment to working with people on how to discover and tell their own stories. I see documentary as a slightly different process from community media – one where the story is told both from the inside and outside at the same time. It’s one of the great things that documentary can do – to bring that subjectivity into a filmed record – at its simplest when seeing a shot of someone doing something, whilst hearing in their own words their thoughts about it. Based on my earlier experience I work very closely with the subjects of my films about what their story means and how to tell it, but I also try to put that story in a context that’s wider than the individual and gets us thinking about our own lives. The power to interpret other people’s stories is an ethical minefield, but I think that the role of the witness or storyteller is a very important one. In a film like “Donor Unknown” I want an audience to find empathy where they might not expect to, to experience the world from other points of view, and at the same time to ask questions about where they stand in relation to what they’re seeing and hearing.

Driving questions…

Hilary Durman (who is one of the film’s producers, alongside Al Morrow of Met Film) had been contacted by Jeffrey (Donor 150) who was interested a drama she had made for BBC schools about donor conception that he’d found on the web. When Hilary told me about Jeffrey’s own story, we started thinking about its potential for a feature doc. It’s a story that provokes us to question what a family is. Through a bizarre set of coincidences, Jeffrey and his children are negotiating new kinds of relationship, for which there aren’t really any social rules. What does a connection based solely on genetics mean? Can it become the basis of a lasting ‘family’ relationship? Is it emotionally necessary for the child? And what does it mean for the biological father? I was excited about how those questions were raised for this specific group of people, connected by a single sperm donor. So we started making contact with some of Jeffrey’s children, including Joellen, who had been the first to start looking for her donor family but still hadn’t met Jeffrey. She was feeling it was time to do that – and was willing for us to film that process – and her search gave us a structure for the film. Once we had that shape, it made it easier to include in parallel the experiences of other children and families, and of Jeffrey.

A film about expectations…

I wanted to approach the story through two kinds of journeys – that of the children looking for their genetic connections, and that of Jeffrey discovering his new family of strangers. It’s a story that lends itself to cross-cutting – between places (Jeffrey’s sperm reached all corners of the United States) and siblings, having connected and common experiences thousands of miles apart as they discover each other. Underlying this is the industry connected with contemporary reproduction – which makes these connections possible – but which is also perhaps opening up a future for which we aren’t emotionally prepared. I felt it was a film about expectations, about how those most outside society can sometimes be about its pioneers, and about the strange power of ‘blood’ connections despite the fantastic diversity of the families we are all part of. Luckily it also had the potential for a lot of humour, with unique characters, several dogs, millions of sperm and a pigeon.

Finding intimacy through distance, and balancing the subjects…

It was hard to make a film which demands a kind of intimacy with its subjects, at 4000 miles distance. I’d always prefer to be more closely available and able to shoot at short notice. For me as a UK-based filmmaker shooting in the US it meant quite limited time with each person; every day was an organized ‘shooting day’ rather than a looser process of filming with people in their daily lives.

It was also a challenge to structure a film that has so many ‘characters’. I like making films that have an ensemble of people at their heart, because all of us live in connection with others. There’s a convention that films need to portray an individual struggle but doesn’t really reflect our interdependence and the way the social world influences how we act. I think documentaries need to evolve forms of storytelling that can cope with that. But films still need a personal core to them, and it was hard initially to find out what that was. We were lucky that Joellen’s story, which takes us from her discovery of her donor siblings through to meeting Jeffrey, could become the focus the film.


Sometimes things became quite surreal. There was a point where we were filming in a car park on Venice Beach, with a man who lived in an RV which could only go in reverse, who had just lost his pet pigeon, but was being helped in the search by two children from his sperm donations twenty years earlier, who had only just met him for the first time, when a third sibling arrived who neither of them had ever met before. All your forward thinking falls apart at moments like that. But somehow it was quite natural for the world of this film.

Future plans…

My next film – aiming for completion in November 2011 – is called “Town of Runners.” It’s set in the small Ethiopian town of Bekoji, which has an astonishing record of producing world class athletes. I’ve been filming there since 2008, and the film follows the stories of two young girls from the town who want to become runners. There’s a website, www.townofrunners.org, for more info. Beyond that, I’m also developing a film about the Vancouver founders of Greenpeace, called “How To Change The World.”

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