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Our Father Review: The horrifying true story of a notorious fertility doctor that fails to empathize with the victims

Despite its attempts to create a compelling narrative, Our Father stays marred by an overbearing nature and unwarranted stylization

1.5rating
  • Swaroop Kodur

Last Updated: 01.18 PM, May 13, 2022

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Our Father Review: The horrifying true story of a notorious fertility doctor that fails to empathize with the victims
'Our Father' Poster

Story:

Spoilers Ahead...

A boom in fertility science in America urges several childless parents to undergo the revolutionary medical procedure of Artificial Insemination. But when Jacoba Ballard, one among the many donor babies born under Dr. Donald Cline's watch, takes a DNA test to learn more about similar donor-conceived children and potential half-siblings, she unravels a shocking truth about Dr. Cline's notorious medical practices and an ever-widening network of half-siblings 

The Review:

Our Father, a new documentary by Lucie Jourdan, becomes the new entrant to Netflix's long list of True Crime specials. With its fuzzy-yet-luring title and a premise that is sure to cause a few chills and gasps, Our Father lives up to the streaming giant's growing reputation for worthwhile and easily digestible content. And while the new doc, at first glance, promises a riveting tale that goes deep into the trenches of the human psyche, its kitschy treatment and bland execution leave the viewer wanting a lot more.

Dr. Donald Cline, a seasoned and popular fertility doctor in Indianapolis, has made the process of artificial insemination easily accessible to the general public. Sooner than later, his clientele begins to grow with several childless parents who are desperate enough to take up the radical medical procedure without much insight or knowledge. Fame and an enviable success rate precede Dr. Cline who assures two important things to all mothers:

  • Every donor is screened prior for a history of medical issues
  • And that each donor would be used not more than three times so as to avoid a network or a large pool of half-siblings in the Indianapolis area

However, things begin to take a rather twisted shape when, decades later, one of Dr. Cline's donor babies accidentally unravels a menacing reality underneath all the rosiness. Jacoba Ballard, who eventually becomes the face and the voice of the true-crime documentary, takes a DNA test at home in order to learn a little about her own origins and any potential half-siblings that are born out of the same donor sperm at Dr. Cline's facility. The result of the DNA test, in most cases, is expected to produce not more than 2 to 3 results but Jacoba's world is turned on its head when she finds out there she has seven other half-siblings. As she begins to connect the dots, she discovers that Dr. Cline's medical practices were as notorious and out-of-bounds as they could get.  

Jacoba's search to get to the bottom of the murkiness renders the perspective of Our Father quite clear, simple, and unidirectional. Director Lucie Jourdan employs a familiar technique seen in most Netflix documentaries but her approach undermines a subject matter so crucial and chilling that the viewer is never allowed to encounter the depths of the horror. Along the timeline, darker and more sinister secrets are unearthed. We understand that Dr. Donald Cline was one of the main donors who would inseminate his patients with his own sperm and Jacoba's own search lands her at a whopping count of half-siblings that ranges beyond any human imagination. However, there is very little we know or learn about Jacoba herself to even begin to care about her dark and messy world. The viewer is always kept at a distance for the director chooses to "construct" the documentary (through awkward reenactments of key moments, unrequired dialogue, and an over smart background score) at every step, instead of etching a narrative that allows for an unbiased view of human extremities and desperation. The one main question eating away at the viewer is "Why?", as to why Dr. Cline would descend to such low heights, and although Jourdan tries to justify with a religious cult angle, it is apparent that she still isn't particularly interested in the entire picture.

That said, the film has its share of touching moments when it lays focus on the many victims. Mothers like Dianna Kiesler and Liz White, who are evidently still shaken by the events of the recent past, offer tenderness and a sense of reality to the film. However, thanks to the attempts of the makers to impress the viewer with an overbearing stylization, the film soon relinquishes these aspects. When things enter the legal space, as Jacoba and her half-siblings motivate themselves to get Dr. Cline, their father, convicted, the film's overall perspective recedes more and more into "planned action", further robbing us all of the pleasures of forming our own judgments. 

The Verdict:

The core issue, however, lies in the template-ish treatment of every Netflix documentary. The basic principle of most docs is ethical division - each film intends on chasing down some kind of evil that mostly manifests in human form - serial killers, sexual assaulters, evil doctors, etc. and the politics is fairly simple as far as ethics or morality is concerned - good vs evil. You introduce a chilling moral dilemma in the form of a crime, substantiate it with a lot of evidence, and then solidify the claims with repeated first-hand accounts.

Errol Morris, one of the foremost figures of the Documentary world, once stated that every story has to brim with a sense of mystery until the very end. Unfortunately, much like many other docs of the true-crime world, Our Father comes off ineffective for it doesn't challenge the viewer's mind with a moral dilemma but instead spoon-feeds them with a predetermined judgment. The film is further marred by the peculiar quality of being carefully constructed and designed so as to make it a worthwhile watch but had Lucie Jourdan, the director, chosen to not fiddle with the material so much, the film had every chance to fare a lot better. In the end, one is left pondering too big a conundrum about Our Father for the film lacks objectivity and empathy for its own characters.

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