Donor Unknown is a story for what has been called the ‘biological century’. From the human genome project to IVF, advances in life sciences since the millennium seem set to transform our relationship to the natural world and to each other, changing how we are conceived, born, grow up, cope with illness, and die.
Perhaps these developments also require new ideas about what it means to be human and how our social connections - families, relationships, friendships – are defined. If that's the case, then Jeffrey Harrison (‘Donor 150’), his children and their parents are pioneers on one stretch of this new frontier.
Sperm donation has been used as a method of conception for far longer than the first recorded incidence in medical journals in the US in the late nineteenth century. What is new is the ability of the donor-conceived child to discover the identity of his or her donor and to initiate contact. This raises some challenging questions: 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? Underlying the story of Jeffrey and his children is the industry which is developing around the technology of human reproduction – which is very different in the US from the UK. Donor Unknown is also a film about America, made from a European perspective - which I hope provokes us to think about the extent to which we want reproduction subject to powerful and lightly regulated commercial forces.
I was drawn to this story because it seemed to me that through an extraordinary set of coincidences, Jeffrey and his children were 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. Their openness and courage take us deeper than the obvious laughs to be had in a film about sperm donation. In making the film I wanted to approach the story through two kinds of journey – that of the children looking for their genetic inheritance, and that of Jeffrey discovering his new family of strangers. It’s a film 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.
But for me what really makes this story unique is the fact that Jeffrey is at its centre. Intelligent, eccentric and good-hearted, I admire him for the way he has lived out his beliefs - a true 'fringe monkey' as he says in the film. His comment that 'I'm not really a nine to fiver' is something of an understatement. When Jeffrey started donating sperm he’d moved to LA as an aspiring actor. But instead of landing a role in Hollywood, he ended up earning a living as a bit part in tourism videos, posing for Playgirl and waiting at tables. Sperm donation at $25 (and later £$80) a go was something he turned to survive. And thanks to his glowing profile, his sperm was popular. Now in his fifties, his life is very different from that of the hopeful youngster who moved to Hollywood. He lives in an RV on Venice Beach, and his closest relationships are with his dogs, and recently an adopted pigeon with a broken wing. The children coming forward offer him a new set of connections – and perhaps a new purpose .