Film Review – Our Father
That was my response throughout the new Netflix documentary, Our Father (2022). The streaming giant has gained a reputation with its true crime docs, often highlighting the salacious details in hopes of gaining traction through word of mouth. As Making a Murderer (2015) and Tiger King (2020) proved, amplifying the shock value of real-life stories can spark an online viral response. The danger with this approach is that it trivializes the traumatic and painful experiences of the subjects. It’s one thing to draw attention to these stories, but it’s another thing to accentuate the lurid aspects in hopes of gaining buzz amongst viewers.
I’m afraid that is what director Lucie Jourdan and the rest production does here. The doc centers on a heinous act committed by a morally bankrupt villain, spending exhaustive efforts to punch that point home. We’re introduced to Dr. Donald Cline, an Indianapolis fertility doctor, who – against all medical ethics – used his own sperm to impregnate his patients. Cline lied to them, advising that the samples were coming from anonymous medical students but in reality switched them with his own. Re-enactments show Cline (played by Keith Boyle) hustling into an adjacent room to masturbate into a cup while the women waited unknowingly. The result was countless half-siblings growing up not realizing the truth of their biological father. It was not until several of them took DNA tests that Cline’s deception was revealed.
This is a gross betrayal of trust between a physician and his patients, with wide-spreading effects. Because Cline’s actions went undetected for years, there is an untold number of his offspring. Many of those that are verified live within a short distance of one another, some within the same town. This brings up a host of questions: Could any of them know each other without realizing they’re related? Could some have dated? Could a child in a playground bump into another kid without knowing they have the same grandfather?
The idea makes the skin crawl. The doc realizes this and exploits it to a high degree. The filmmaking gets in the way of the human story. The direction, cinematography, editing, and music construct the narrative as though it were a B-level horror film (the fact that this is a Blumhouse production might have something to do with that). Cline – in re-enactments – is shot like an otherworldly demon, with his head tilted down looking up through his eyebrows toward the camera. The music intrudes with dark and brooding melodies, occasionally inserting loud booms to mark shocking twists. Worst of all, whenever we meet a new sibling, they’re accompanied by an onscreen counter designating what “number” they are. Each time the counter ticks up (“Sibling #2, Sibling #6, Sibling #17,” etc.) we hear the sound of a man moaning. Was this necessary? We understand the means by which Cline collected his own samples – do we need to be reminded of his ejaculation every time the counter goes up?
I became increasingly put off by how the doc presents this story. Our de facto protagonist is Jacoba Ballard, who was one of Cline’s off-spring and is assigned as “Sibling #1.” Jacoba was one of the first to discover what Cline was doing and made it a personal mission to expose him. Unfortunately, the film does not do a good enough job in supporting her (or any of the other siblings). When she talks about walking down the street unsure if anyone she walks by is related to her, the production actually has her walking down a random street with actors suspiciously glaring at her. When we hear real life phone conversations between Jacoba and the real Cline, she is tasked to participate in the re-enactment, having to relive those moments. The production has her sit in a stage with newspaper clippings and random photos scattered everywhere, as if she were a loony conspiracy theorist. This notion is further exemplified in the scene where she – along with other siblings – debate Cline’s motives. Was it a sexual fetish? Was Cline part of a religious cult intent to spread their seed across the country? This is nothing but pure speculation – trying to connect the dots using invisible lines.
Things settle down once we get into the details of the investigation and subsequent trial, which itself was a mess. One person of note was Angela Ganote, a local news station reporter who was notified of Jacoba’s case and doggedly pursued it. It was through her determination that authorities finally caught wind of Cline. Legally, prosecutors had a difficult time trying to pinpoint a crime that would fit what Cline did. For any outsider, it’s obvious that Cline did something terrible, but the law (at the time) did not have a precedence for this case. How could attorneys define the crime? Was it rape when the women came to Cline knowing he was going to inseminate them? Was it fraud when the donors were meant to be anonymous? It was a slippery slope of legal jargon, reinforcing the idea that victims of crime are often left to the wayside when it comes to justice.
Don’t get me wrong, what happened to these women and their families was wrong and they need to have their voices heard. However, they deserve to be featured in a better documentary. Our Father is not the strongest platform for this material. The manipulative filmmaking undercuts what is being told, making the doc more about the beast than the people.