Donor Unknown

October 20, 2011


Jerry Rothwell


About the Documentary

JoEllen Marsh, 20, wants to know who her biological father is. All she knows of him is the label the California Cryobank gave him in the 1980s: Donor 150.

JoEllen has always known her family wasn’t like other families. She grew up in Pennsylvania with two mothers, and a burning curiosity to know more about her anonymous donor father. When JoEllen discovers a website that connects donor‐conceived children, she manages to track down a half‐sister in New York. The New York Times picks up the story, and, over time, 12 more half‐siblings emerge across the United States.

The article also falls into the hands of Jeffrey Harrison, living alone with four dogs and a pigeon in a broken‐down RV in a Venice Beach parking lot. In the 1980s, Jeffrey supplemented his meager income by becoming a regular sperm donor at California Cryobank. He was given an identifying number: 150. In a surreal moment, he recognizes himself as the unnamed central character in the story told on the front page of the New York Times. In time, Jeffrey comes forward to identify himself as Donor 150.

In this cascade of revelations seen in the film Donor Unknown, JoEllen corresponds with her newly discovered half-siblings, comparing what they have in common, and the ways in which they resemble one another. Nervous but curious, JoEllen wants to arrange to meet with Jeffrey, but some of her half-siblings are ambivalent. Danielle in New York is skeptical that she could have a meaningful relationship with Jeffrey. Rachelle, in Memphis, isn’t sure she would want to meet him at all. Ryann and Roxanne, who live in California, have already visited him on their own.

In the end, JoEllen finds Fletcher, her 19-year-old half brother, who agrees to accompany her to rendezvous with Roxanne in the parking lot in Los Angeles where Jeffrey lives. In the end, it is a very modern family reunion among practical strangers who happen to share DNA. The journey raises questions about what makes us who we are, what makes a family, and what the brave new world of fertility technology means for our assumptions about both.

The Filmmaker

Jerry Rothwell is a documentary filmmaker whose directing credits include the feature documentaries Heavy Load, winner of the Audience Award at the 2008 Britdoc Film Festival; and Deep Water, co-directed with Louise Osmond and winner of the Grierson Award and Best Documentary at the Rome Film Festival.


Full Credits


  • Silverdocs (AFI Docs) Documentary Festival

    Audience Award

  • Tribeca Online Film Festival

    Best Feature Film

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Join the Discussion

Should it be legal to buy and sell the means of reproduction? Should donors be allowed to be anonymous? What right do the children of donors have to know where they come from?


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