Jerry Rothwell is a documentary filmmaker whose work includes the award-winning feature docs Heavy Load (IFC/ITVS/BBC), about a group of people with learning disabilities who form a punk band; and Deep Water (Pathe/FilmFour/UK Film Council, co‐directed with Louise Osmond), about Donald Crowhurst’s ill‐fated voyage in the 1968 round the world yacht race. We sat down with Jerry to learn more about how he came to make the quirky film Donor Unknown, which premieres on Thursday, Oct. 20 at 10 PM on most PBS stations (check here for listings).
What impact do you hope Donor Unknown will have?
I hope it provokes audiences to think about the impact of the technology of reproduction and what this means for our sense of connection to our biological relatives and to our ideas about family. As with many areas of science, our social understanding lags far behind what technology is making possible, so I hope the film encourages people into a more rounded understanding of donor conception — and also to recognize how sometimes those, like Jeffrey (the sperm donor in the film), who seem most outside society are its pioneers.
We first found out about Jeffrey because Hilary Durman (who is one of the film’s producers, alongside Al Morrow of Met Film) had been in contact with him while researching a drama she had made for BBC Schools about donor conception. I first met him in 2008 in his RV on Venice Beach. Jeffrey’s a unique and charismatic character who’s lived a life on the fringe of society – which made what was already a fascinating story even more surprising. Through a bizarre set of coincidences, he and his children are dealing with age-old human dilemmas – where do I come from, what is my connection with the past, where are the boundaries of my family – in a uniquely modern context. I was excited about how those questions were raised for this specific group of people, connected by a single sperm donor.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?
It was hard to make a film, which demands intimacy with its subjects, from 4,000 miles away. I’d always prefer to be more closely available and able to shoot at short notice.
A second challenge was 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 that 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 such 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 spine of the film.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
We filmed first with Jeffery when we were in the United States for SXSW with another film. Then we started making contact with some of his children, who put us in touch with each other – and I think they got a sense we would treat the subject matter sensitively. Some of Jeffrey’s children preferred not to be in the film, and we respected that. Others were happy to talk about their experiences, I think because they wanted to counter some of the mystique around donor conception. JoEllen, who had been the first to start looking for her donor family, 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.
What would you have liked to include that didn’t make the cut?
Perhaps more of Jeffrey’s world on Venice Beach – and more of the perspectives of the parents.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I like the moment in the film when one of the children arrives to visit Jeffrey at the same time as he loses the pigeon he’s been looking after. It says something to me about the chaos that’s part of any kind of family.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
It’s a film that asks a lot of questions, but one doesn’t offer the answers – so it always provokes a good discussion. A surprising number of people who’ve come to see the film are either donor conceived themselves, have donated sperm, or are contemplating IVF using a donor. Some have said the film gave them the impetus to look for their own donor, or changed the way they thought about whether they would tell their unborn child about their donor – so I’m glad that the film rings true for people with similar experiences.
I always share a rough cut with the main protagonists – their comments made me change a couple of things and I think everyone involved is happy with the film.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
It’s difficult but incredibly satisfying and exciting. It’s a great privilege to immerse yourself for a period in other people’s worlds and make something that explores the meaning of that world for others.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
PBS seems the natural home for a film like this. Independent Lens is a great series it we’re very glad to be part of this season.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Spending time with my family.
What are your three favorite films?
It changes all the time, but right now In the Mood for Love, Forest of Bliss, and Little Miss Sunshine.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Don’t hang around waiting for someone to ask you to make a film – start making films in whatever form you can. Be prepared to change your ideas when events point you in different directions from those you expected. Ground your films in your own interpretation of what you’ve seen, and approach them with honesty: your thinking is as important as your style.
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
Something that leaves you hungry.