pplenty of true crime documentaries enjoy the cold case and tell narrative complete stories that can be presented with the comforting buffer of history. Our Father, which can be seen on Netflix from Wednesday, is different. It is a shocking, painfully topical film.
Our Father tells the story of Jacoba Ballard, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman who never felt like she belonged in her family. After using a 23andMe DNA testing kit in 2014, she began to discover why. Her DNA results showed 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 — and the biological father of her new siblings — was Donald Cline, her parents’ fertility doctor. Cline, it turned out, had a habit of inseminating women with his own sperm without their consent or knowledge.
The first underbelly of the docu-drama is that this happened at all. The second is learning how many times it happened. Throughout the course of the Lord’s Prayer, Ballard’s number of siblings has steadily increased and has continued to do so ever since.
“We actually had a new sibling show up the day the trailer fell,” Ballard says of Zoom from her home in Indiana. Now 41, she has made it her life’s work to understand the magnitude of what Cline did to his patients. Every time someone unknowingly gets a DNA test and finds their profile on hers, she extends her hand and gently explains what happened. It’s clearly in the Lord’s Prayer, but talking to her in person underscores the toll it has taken on her.
“So many of them don’t even know they were conceived by a donor, and some thought they came from their father’s sperm,” she says with a deep sigh of her siblings. “Every time we have a new game, I give them this news, and it’s like I’m ruining their lives.”
“That’s who Jacoba is,” adds Lucie Jourdan, the film’s director. “She was and is that person. It’s unbelievable.”
Jourdan began the story in December 2017, after Cline was tried in Indiana. “There were only 22 brothers and sisters at the time,” she notes dryly. Her interest seems to be a turning point for Ballard and her siblings. Because like everything else, Our Father is a movie about not being heard. Upon discovering Cline’s actions, Ballard informed the state and national attorneys general, along with every press she could think of, but found herself repeatedly ignored. After banging on a succession of closed doors for months, 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 didn’t get the closure they deserved. Despite inseminating countless women with his own sperm, Cline had not violated criminal law at the time and was fined $500 (£400) – for obstructing justice by denying the charges (although he also lost his medical license). ). This is when Jourdan intervened.
“After everything that had happened to us, we had so little confidence,” Ballard says of his meeting with Jourdan. “We had been approached by other people, but we needed someone who wasn’t going to twist the story. We wanted it to be told accurately, we wanted everything in it and we wanted it to be made with our feelings in mind.”
The finished film is an incredible piece of work, growing and unfolding with a palpable sense of dread as the magnitude of Cline’s misdeeds reveals itself.
“It just keeps coming like an avalanche,” Jourdan says. “And I think it conveys the exact same feeling that Jacoba and the other siblings felt. It doesn’t stop, it gets more and more intense, more ridiculous, more absurd. It’s heartbreaking. And it was so important to hear Cline’s voice in the movie, who said, ‘oh, there’s no more than 10 siblings,’ ‘there aren’t more than 15’ — just showing his lies.”
Which brings us to Cline herself. Jacoba says: “Some people online have said he is dead. He’s not dead.”
Jourdan added: “He is active in his community. He goes to his grandchildren’s swimming competitions and things like that. There is no hiding. That’s the thing, he’s still on the road. In his head I don’t think he thinks he did much wrong.”
Has he not been in touch? “No, he hasn’t,” Ballard says, and her voice begins to tremble. “I even tried to contact him last year. I’ve been sick for two years and literally begged him for medical information. And nothing. It’s not just me, I also have other siblings who are sick. We just want to get some medical information, but we don’t even get it.”
Cline called Jacoba when she first found out he was her biological father, Jourdan says, “and he specifically said, ‘The world doesn’t need to know.’ So to see the world know in real time was absolutely incredible. When we started this, we promised the siblings that we would take this to a large audience. I’m just thankful that this actually happened.”
I was hesitant about my interview with Ballard because, as much as Our Father was made to her liking, the thought of letting her relive such a massive trauma didn’t sit very well. But, as she quickly explains, she can see that sunlight is the best disinfectant in this case.
“Making this film was like a healing process,” she says. “But I’m also a mentor to people who have been conceived by donors and people who, I say, have been cheated on by doctors. Organizations like Right to Know have reached out to me and my siblings. And we’re collecting stuff, resources for the public to help people when it’s convenient.”
Ballard’s number of siblings remains astonishingly high and is expected to grow even more. The only siblings discovered so far are those who willingly bought DNA kits for the home.
“We’re at the mercy of finding siblings by, you know, hoping someone would want to know how Italian they are,” says Jourdan. “That’s the only way they’ll find out. What happens is that every holiday there will be an influx of new siblings as everyone gets their DNA test before Christmas. They are excited to take it, and then in February they are heartbroken.”
“In the donor groups I’m in, it’s called ‘sibling season,'” adds Ballard, from people who often had the impression that they were conceived naturally.
“This is something Cline told parents to say,” Jourdan says. “It was a very specific guideline that you never tell your children that you had fertility problems or insemination. This was part of the dialogue he had with his patients. They trusted their doctor to give them the right advice.”
So far, Ballard has discovered siblings born between 1972 and 1988. But Cline was in medicine until 2009, so chances are this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“The hope of the film is that absolutely everyone will be tested,” says Jourdan. “Before he was a fertility doctor, Cline was a gynaecologist. Anyone who saw him and happened to be pregnant after seeing him for whatever reason should test. It’s sickening, but I think it’s a call to action.”
Both Ballard and Jourdan are bracing for another wave of siblings once Our Father hits Netflix.
“You could watch this and be oblivious to the fact that you’re part of it, and then suddenly everyone in the movie is your sibling,” Jourdan says. “There’s a good chance that’s going to happen.”
The anger at seeing Cline slip through the courts was such 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 shock wave created by Our Father will be enough to do this nationwide.
“Of course this shouldn’t be legal,” says Jourdan, palpably angered by a situation that has brought to light 44 other doctors who have used their own sperm to inseminate patients — all of which have 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 scary. And it happens internationally. Why is this a thing? Why was it so rampant and why are we still fighting this?”
Jourdan also hopes that Our Father will revive the case against Cline. “Maybe there’s a top attorney watching this and coming up with a loophole,” she says. “Oh my god, I would love that. That would be the icing on the cake.”
Ballard is understandably more resigned. “I don’t think we’ll ever prevent this,” she sighs. “Unfortunately, some people in our world are just naturally bad. But if we can get new laws, maybe they’ll think twice. Maybe then they know there are consequences to their actions.”