Pslow of true crime documentaries reveal in the cold case, doing out narratively complete stories that can be presented with the comforting buffer of history. Our Father, available on Netflix from Wednesday, is different. It is a shockingly, painfully current film.
Our Father tells the story of Jacoba Ballard, a blond haired, blue eyed woman who never felt she completely belonged in her family. After using a 23andMe DNA testing kit in 2014, she began to discover why. Her DNA results from her showed that she had a handful of half siblings from an unidentified father. As she began to investigate, the sickening truth began to reveal itself. Her biological father of her – and the biological father of her new siblings – was Donald Cline, her parents’ fertility doctor. Cline, it turned out, had habitually inseminated women with his own sperm without their consent or knowledge of him.
The first gut punch of the docu-drama is that this happened at all. The second is learning just how many times it happened. Throughout the course of Our Father, the number of Ballard’s siblings ticks steadily upwards, and she has continued to do so ever since.
“We actually had a new sibling pop up the day the trailer dropped,” Ballard says over Zoom from her home in Indiana. Now 41, she has made it her life’s work de ella to understand the extent of what Cline did to his patients de ella. Every time someone unknowingly gets a DNA test and finds their profile of her linked to hers, she reaches out and gently explains what has happened. It is evident in Our Father, but talking to her about her in person underlines the toll this has taken on her.
“So many of them don’t even know they were-conceived, and some donor believed they came from their dad’s sperm,” she says of her siblings, sighing deeply. “Every time we get a new match I give them this news, and it’s like I’m ruining their life.”
“That’s who Jacoba is,” adds Lucie Jourdan, the film’s director. “She was her and is that person. It’s unbelievable.”
Jourdan started pursuing the story in December 2017, after Cline had stood trial in Indiana. “There were only 22 siblings at the time,” she notes dryly. Her interest in her seems like a turning point for Ballard and her siblings in her. Because, as much as anything else, Our Father is a film about failing to be heard. On discovery of Cline’s actions de ella, Ballard informed the attorney generals on state and national level, along with every press outlet she could think of, only to find herself repeatedly ignored. After months spent banging on a succession of locked doors, the story was picked up by the morning anchor of a local Fox affiliate, and Cline was eventually taken to court. But thanks to a blind spot in Indiana state law, the siblings failed to get the closure they served. Despite inseminating countless women with his own sperm, Cline had not violated criminal law at the time and was let off with a $500 (£400) fine – for obstructing justice by denying the allegations (although he did also lose his medical licence). This is when Jourdan stepped in.
“After everything that had happened to us, we had so little trust,” Ballard says of meeting Jourdan. “We had been approached by other people, but we needed someone who was not going to spin the story. We wanted it told accurately, we wanted everything in, and we wanted it made with our feelings in mind.”
The finished film is an incredible piece of work, growing and unspooling with a palpable sense of dread as the magnitude of Cline’s wrongdoings reveal itself.
“It just keeps coming like an avalanche,” says Jourdan. “And I think it echoes the exact feeling that Jacoba and the other siblings felt. It doesn’t stop, it keeps getting more intense, more ridiculous, more absurd. It’s heartbreaking. And it was so important to hear Cline’s voice from him in the film, saying ‘oh, there’s no more than 10 siblings’, ‘there’s no more than 15’ – just showing his lies from him.
Which brings us to Cline himself. Jacoba says: “Some people online have said he’s dead. He’s not dead.”
Jourdan adds: “He’s active around his community. He’s going to grandchildren’s swim meets and things like that. There’s no hiding. That’s the thing, he’s still out and about. In his head, I don’t think he thinks he’s done much wrong.
Hasn’t I been in contact? “No, he has not,” says Ballard, her voice beginning to tremble. “I actually tried to contact him last year. I have been sick for two years, and I literally begged him for medical information. And nothing. It’s not just me – I have other siblings who are sick as well. We just want to get some medical information, but we can’t even get that.”
Cline did call Jacoba when she first figured out he was her biological father, says Jourdan, “and he specifically said: ‘The world does not need to know.’ So to see the world knowing in real time has been absolutely incredible. When we started this, we promised the siblings we would get this out to a huge audience. I just feel grateful this has actually happened.”
I was trepidatious before my interview with Ballard because, as much as Our Father was made according to her wishes, the thought of making her relive such an enormous trauma didn’t sit particularly well. But, as she is quick to explain, she can see that in this case sunlight is the best disinfectant.
“Making this film was like a healing process,” she says. “But also I’m a mentor for donor-conceived people and those who are, I say, doctor-deceived. Organizations like Right to Know have reached out to me and my siblings. And we’re putting together stuff, resources for the public to help people when this comes out.”
The number of Ballard’s siblings remains astonishingly high, and the expectation is that it will grow higher still. The only siblings uncovered so far are those who willingly bought home DNA kits.
“We’re at the mercy of finding siblings just by, you know, hoping somebody wants to find out how Italian they are,” Jourdan says. “That’s the only way they’re finding out. What happens is, every holiday, there’ll be an influx of new siblings because everyone gets their Christmas DNA test. They’re excited to take it, and then in February they’re heartbroken.”
“In the donor-conceived groups I’m in, it’s referred to as ‘sibling season’,” Ballard adds, of people who were often under the impression that they were conceived naturally.
“This is something Cline instructed parents to say,” says Jourdan. “It was a very specific directive that you never ever tell your children you had fertility issues or insemination. This was part of the dialogue he had with his patients. They were trusting their doctor to give them the right advice.”
So far, Ballard has uncovered siblings born between 1972 and 1988. But Cline practiced medicine until 2009, so the overwhelming likelihood is that this is simply the tip of the iceberg.
“The hope of the film is that absolutely everyone gets tested,” says Jourdan. “Before he was a fertility doctor, Cline was a gynecologist. Anyone who saw him and happened to be pregnant after seeing him for any reason should test. It’s sickening, but I think it’s a call to action.”
Both Ballard and Jourdan are bracing themselves for a new wave of siblings once Our Father hits Netflix.
“You could watch this and be oblivious to the fact that you’re part of it, then suddenly everyone in the film is your sibling,” says Jourdan. “There’s a high likelihood that’s going to happen.”
Such was the anger of watching Cline slip through justice that, in 2019, Indiana became the first US state to make it a felony for fertility doctors to use their own sperm without their patients’ prior knowledge and consent. Ballard and Jourdan hope the shockwave caused by Our Father will be enough to take this nationwide.
“Of course, this should not be legal,” says Jourdan, palpably angry about a situation that has revealed 44 other doctors who have used their own sperm to inseminate patients – all of which has come to light since the trailer dropped.
“Why is this a fight? The hope is that a federal law will be passed but, my God, it’s frightening. And it’s happening internationally. Why is this a thing? Why was it so rampant and why are we still battling this?”
Jourdan also holds out hope that Our Father will reignite the case against Cline. “Maybe there’s some hotshot lawyer out there who watches this and figures out a loophole,” she says. “Oh my God, would I love that. That would be the cherry on top.”
Ballard is understandably more resigned. “I don’t think we’re ever going to stop this from happening,” she sighs. “Unfortunately, in our world, some people are just inherently evil. But if we can get new laws, maybe, you know, they’ll think twice. Maybe they’ll know that there are consequences to their actions.”