Donor Unknown Interview
Donor Unknown Interview
Jerry Rothwell is a filmmaker who has made programmes for Channel 4, BBC, Carlton and the Arts Council, and has been creative force behind two award winning documentaries, Heavy Load and Deep Water. His most recent feature focuses on one man and his multitude of children, all of which were conceived through sperm donation.

Alongside JoEllen Marsh, who set out to find her father and then became the subject of the documentary, Jerry Rothwell spoke to View’s Matthew Turner about how the film came about and what it’s like to discover 13 half siblings that all look a little bit like you.
Jerry, the film tells the story from JoEllen's point of view but at what point did you get involved?

Jerry Rothwell

One of the producers on the film had been doing some research for the BBC for a drama she was making about donor conception and she'd come across Jeffrey [JoEllen's donor father] in the course of that. Then about a year later, she and I were talking about some releated issue and she told me about Jeffrey and we really took it from there. ‘Here's an idea for a feature doc.’ I suppose what I was interested in was that there were this group of people from the same donor who were kind of exploring something that was at the fringes of the way families are changing.
It's slightly galling to be constantly called the real Kids Are All Right...
At what stage along in the story was that?

Jerry Rothwell

I think we first started talking about it in 2007, which was a couple of years after the New York Times article. The film kind of splits into two parts, really: there's a kind of retrospective part, which really takes you to the point at which you [JoEllen] start thinking about visiting Jeffrey and that's why we structured the film around JoEllen's story, because she'd been the first to look for Jeffrey and for her siblings. And just that she wanted to meet him as well and she willing to have us there.
JoEllen, how did Jerry persuade you to put all this on film?

JoEllen Marsh

Well, I don't think there was much persuading, was there? [Laughs] I'd heard that there were these filmmakers who wanted to do a documentary, so then he came to visit me when I was in college and I said I would be interested to meet [Jeffrey] at some point. I was thinking about doing it pretty soon anyway, so it sort of just worked out that it was the same time frame.
Had you already thought that you would want to do a documentary?

JoEllen Marsh

It had always been something that we'd talked about, you know, maybe someone would want to make a film at some point, but it just sort of came along and we were all willing to do it.
Has there been any interest in turning it into a Hollywood drama?

Jerry Rothwell

A little bit. I mean, obviously because The Kids Are All Right kind of covers that territory, probably less so, but I think these days fiction people do look to documentaries for possible stories. So we'll see what happens.
So when The Kids Are All Right came out, were you like, ‘Oh.’

Jerry Rothwell

Not really. I mean, it's slightly galling to be constantly called “the real Kids Are All Right” or something but on the whole we've come off okay in the comparisons. I haven't seen The Kids Are All Right, usually because I just try not to watch other stuff around something that I'm making, because you can either end up unconsciously copying it or it sends you in another direction, but I've heard lots of good things about it.
Have you seen it, JoEllen?

JoEllen Marsh

Actually, I haven't seen it. [Laughs]
I suppose you've lived it. How many donor siblings are there now, in total? Have any others come forward since the film?

JoEllen Marsh

Including me, it's 14, but no others have come forward since the film.
Do you anticipate when the film goes a bit wider, that there will be more?

JoEllen Marsh

That would be great. I think that it's gotten a lot of publicity already, so there might still be people out there who are thinking about coming forward but aren't really sure if they want to sign up on the registry. So maybe seeing the film will encourage them to.

Jerry Rothwell

One of the reasons we didn't call the film Donor 150 was that we wanted to create a bit of a gap between Googling your donor number and the film giving you that whole story. But I always thought that maybe there would be more people coming forward as a consequence of the film. But I suppose, to come forward, you've first of all got to know that you're donor-conceived, you've then got to be of age, where you're interested in looking. There may well be people who have seen the film and know that but who are still thinking about whether to come forward or not.
One of the most striking things, when watching the film, is how physically similar you all are. You have that great montage where you cut between everyone ticking off all the things they have in common. So there could conceivably be someone who sees the film and kind of recognises themselves in all of you.

JoEllen Marsh

Someone who wasn't told, yeah.
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Content updated: 24/04/2019 08:13

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