Documentaries are a difficult medium to work on. Your study subject needs to be as interesting as it can be, and the filmmaker has to use very tool as their disposal to present it in the most interesting possible light. Regardless, no matter how much effort a documentarian puts into their work, not all subject matters are going to be fascinating for many members of the audience. This is what makes documentaries a niche medium in cinema.
Netflix has been having a lot of success recently with their series of true-crime documents, where they pick one event and go full deep dive into it. Most of these documentary series work because the filmmakers know exactly how much information needs to be delivered and when. They also often end with a new revelation that makes the audiences just want to push play on the next episode, and in a blink they have binged the whole series.
Our Father is a documentary directed by Lucie Jourdan, and it is now available on Netflix. The documentary tells the story of Donald Cline, a renowned fertility doctor who is exposed to have used his sperm to make countless pregnant patients. The documentary follows a group of siblings who discover that Cline is their real biological father, and how that has changed their lives and identities.
The story is a horrifying tale of abuse of power, and trust. Doctors around the world have from the get go the power to make us trust them. We put our faith in their words, their treatments, because we know that most of the people who follow the profession have decided to do it because they want to help people in any way they can. Preserving lives, and saving them when they are at risk, is a hard and stressful calling.
In view of that fact, it becomes even more shocking when it is a doctor the one that breaks the trust and starts behaving in a reprehensible way. The way that Cline misleads their patients is sick, and it is very understandable that the mothers feel that they have been violated. The reaction from the side of the children, who are now all of them grown-ups, it is a bit more muddle, and it could be that some members of the audiences cannot completely relate or understand those feelings.
When one of the characters says that finding out their father is not their actual biological father was the most traumatic thing in their lives, for some that would sound a bit overly dramatic. Some characters also display a sense that the lives that they have lived until the moment they found out have been completely invalidated. They feel like if they were living fake lives, which also comes across as overly dramatic, and a bit out of touch.
Of course, their feelings are completely validated, that is what the characters are feeling, but those reactions are so specific that they might look completely alien for someone who has lived in a different context of life. If finding out your parent isn’t your biological parent is the worst that has ever happened to you, then you are going to be well, you are better than the 90% of people out there. You should be grateful for that.
The documentary uses most of the documentary conventions we have been used to seeing in the medium for quite some time. The interviews are done in this clean, almost lifeless environment, and the cinematography does every single thing possible to feel the mood with dread and despair.
The documentary also uses quite a number of reenactments, complete with dramatic music, slow motion, and more. These are logical choices when it comes to creating that mood in your film, but subtlety doesn’t come from using all of them, all the time. As the documentary progresses, it starts to feel artificial, and you might want to look up on Google to see if this is true and not a parody. Not because of the situation, but how the situation is presented.
The second half of the documentary loses a lot of steam, as the mystery of whom these people’s father is revealed completely. Yes, Cline is their father, and father of countless others that still have not been informed. However, there are still 45 more minutes in the runtime. What could they be about?
This later half of the documentary is filled with speculation and conspiracy theories start being developed. It all makes for some entertaining stuff. But it isn’t even half as compelling as the human drama present in the first half. By the time the documentary ends, you might have been disconnected from it for quite a while. Our Father simply spilled the beans a bit too early, and then it had to complete the rest of the film with something else. That something else, feels like fluff.
Jacoba Ballard, makes for somewhat of a main character for the film, but she is not particularly compelling or interesting as a person. When she tells us her story, it is the situation that is intriguing. But when she tries to insert herself in the narrative it makes her boring, the same happens to her other siblings, there’s no character to latch on to.
The fact that Cline only appears in archive footage is such a missed opportunity, it really makes a difference when you have only one side of the story. If the production had managed to get their hands and an interview Cline about what happened that would make the documentary more of a must-watch.
In its current form, Our Father is more a curiosity than a documentary that is worth watching. You might want to look the story on the internet and actually find more interesting information about it. The documentary might be a good choice to burn 90 minutes, but it could have been so much better in terms of content and presentation, that feels like a wasted opportunity.