Blumhouse explores real-life horror in this compelling and disturbing documentary.
The bond of trust between a doctor and patient should be sacred. No matter who they are, a person should be able to trust that their physician has their best interests at heart. This need for trust is most important when it comes to fertility; any woman who wants to become pregnant deserves informed consent before they become pregnant. While most doctors uphold the dignity of their charges, there are some who will use their position of power to exploit women at their most vulnerable.
One doctor who betrayed the trust of his patients is Donald Cline, a fertility specialist who used his own sperm to impregnate women who came to him for fertility assistance. Throughout his career, he fathered more than 50 children, all without the mothers or children knowing that he was the biological father.
While Cline is, undoubtedly, a fascinating case study, he isn’t the subject of Lucie Jourdan’s documentary, Our Father. Instead, Jourdan centers on the women he deceived and the children left to deal with the aftermath of his deception. The story she tells is disturbing, but nonetheless celebrates the tenacity of those who want the truth to come out.
Jourdan interviews several of Cline’s progeny in Our Father, but the Netflix doc’s true protagonist is Jacoba Ballard, the woman who first figured out that Cline could be their collective father. An only child who knew that her mother used artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor, she purchased a “23 and Me” DNA kit in the hopes that she could find siblings. Expecting to only find one or two (her mother was told that they never used a donor more than 3 times), she was shocked to find seven.
Determined to find out why there were so many, she dug in further, and eventually determined that Cline, who treated Ballard’s mother in 1979, was most likely the father. Despite his initial denial, Cline eventually admitted that he used his own sperm. What follows is a story about Ballard, her family, the families of her half-siblings, and their joint pursuit of justice.
Jourdan tells their tale mostly in talking-head interviews and reenactments, specifically in scenes involving Cline, which helps break up the often clinical nature of these kinds of interview-heavy docs. The reliance on reenactments helps amplify the emotional intensity of Cline’s misdeeds, and gives the doc an extra layer of horror that can’t be achieved by talking heads.
Cline makes for a great horror villain, portrayed in both the interviews and reenactments as cold, uncaring, and unremorseful.
The reenactments featuring Cline performing artificial insemination are especially creepy, with unsettling close-ups of medical instruments and nervous women set to ominous music. Most disturbing of all is Jourdan’s choice to pepper Cline’s orgasmic moan whenever a new child is revealed. It’s no surprise that Jason Blum (of Blumhouse fame) is one of the producers, and the documentary is about as disturbing as the horror imprint’s fictional fare.
Cline makes for a great horror villain, portrayed in both the interviews and reenactments as cold, uncaring, and unremorseful. One would almost think his characterization is an exaggeration until you hear recordings of his conversations with Ballard, where he shows no remorse other than the possible destruction of his name.
These conversations, as well as court transcripts, are the only insight we get into Cline. While we do have interviews with his coworkers and friends, we don’t see much of his side of the story. This is understandable, since he didn’t work with the filmmakers, and I appreciate that Our Father cares more about the victims than the victimizer. That said, the lack of insight into Cline does lead the documentary into some unsubstantiated territory.
This is most noticeable when it’s implied that he may have committed these acts due to an alleged adherence to the Quiverfull movement. While Quiverfull places a large focus on filling the world with babies, the movement focuses on teaching the children Christian values, something Cline wouldn’t be able to do (some of his victims were Jewish). The only connection he seems to have with the movement is a reference to a Quiverfull politician who ignored Ballard’s request for an investigation, which is hardly anything substantive enough on which to spend a major tangent.
While the Quiverfull subplot seems out there, it’s not surprising that the victims have little but conjecture to go on, since Cline never really explains why he used his sperm for so many children. We will probably never know why Cline did what he did, and the documentary is filled with unanswered questions. Yet by the end of Our Father, you don’t feel cheated with a lack of answers. The story of the siblings discovering the truth behind their parentage, as well as their fight to bring Cline to justice, is a compelling one.
Most importantly, you gain a real sense of empathy with the victims. It would be easy to turn the story of Our Father into sensationalized tabloid fodder. While Jourdan doesn’t shy away from the more lurid aspects of the case, it never feels sleazy or exploitative. It’s made clear from the start that what Cline did is wrong, and has caused real psychological harm Every step of the movie is with the siblings, and we are shown their strength and determination, even as Cline tries to stop their progress.
Our Father is a good documentary, but it’s not a replacement for justice. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Cline’s children or their parents will ever get any sense of compensation or closure for what’s happened to them. At the time, what he did was not considered a crime, and the ones he did commit (obstruction of justice) were met with a slap on the wrist. As such, the destruction of his reputation, the thing he seemed to fear most, is the only retribution his victims have left.
Our Father us currently streaming on Netflix.