‘Our Father’: Avoiding and encountering the pitfalls of true-crime documentaries

When Jacoba Ballard took her 23andMe test in 2014, she expected one or two half-siblings — after all, the Indianapolis fertility clinic her mother attended stated that her biological father’s sperm donation would be used no more than three times. When Ballard received her results, she found not one, not two, but seven half-siblings — and that was just the start. Years later, the 94 recorded half-siblings are seeking justice against their father — the fertility doctor who impregnated his patients with his own sperm and without their consent. 

The Netflix documentary “Our Father” follows Ballard, her half-siblings and their parents as they grapple with their anger and fear following their revelations of Dr. Donald Cline’s crimes. While “Our Father” trips over the seemingly unavoidable pit of Netflix sensationalism, it remains a rare true-crime documentary that values the victims’ stories over cash-grab entertainment. 

The documentary does not shy away from the sordid imagery of Cline’s crimes: the opening scene begins with Cline’s actor masturbating in a replica of the doctor’s office, the walls covered in cross-stitches of colorful Bible quotes and pictures of smiling babies. However, the producers may have indulged too much in this dramatization. A recurring motif throughout the documentary is a “sibling counter” — which tacks on the sound of Cline softly moaning whenever the number increases. 

Ballard, the leader of the movement for her siblings, is not immune to overdramatized documentary visuals. In an attempt to illustrate her dogged determination, Ballard’s actor is shown dramatically throwing X’s over Cline’s eyes before a wall covered in your stereotypical true-crime evidence board, complete with intersecting red string. 

The documentary briefly delves into Cline’s motivations — including his remorse after killing a young girl in a traffic accident and his involvement with Quiverfull, a Christian religious movement that sees large families as a blessing from God. Former associates of Cline attempt to speculate about his motivations, but this intriguing bit is inconclusively cut short and leaves the viewers with more questions than answers.

Despite its shortcomings, the documentary faithfully describes the internal turmoil of the victims of Cline’s crimes underneath the sensationalism. True-crime documentaries — such as Netflix’s “Tiger King,” have been criticized for focusing on the absurdity of the criminals instead of the victims, while serial killer biopics such as “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” have been accused of romanticizing killers while trivializing crimes. In such a genre, “Our Father” is a rarity.

“Our Father” delves into the raw emotional impact of the revelation — the identity crises of the children and the distress of their parents upon finding out the news. One of the siblings, Heather Woock, revealed she couldn’t look in the mirror — unable to think of where her hair or eyes came from, “because [she] always thought those were from [her] dad.” 

Even though Dr. Cline was taken to court on felony charges and has paid $1.35 million in civil case settlements, he served no jail time and was never criminally charged due to the lack of statutes addressing his crime. The documentary allows the siblings and their families to tell their stories, despite legal limitations placed upon their movement, such as a limited definition of “battery” and “sexual violation” that did not encompass Cline’s actions. Some mothers believed that they were using their husband’s sperm; others believed that the specimen was from a healthy medical school student. In any case, their bodily autonomy was violated.

“My first words were, ‘I was raped 15 times, and I didn’t even know it,’” said Liv White, the mother of one of the siblings, referencing her number of fertility treatments.

The documentary closes with a bittersweet overview of the siblings’ progress. In 2018, the siblings and their mothers successfully lobbied for the nation’s first fertility fraud and deception law in Indiana. While forty-four additional doctors have been found to be perpetrators of fertility fraud, there is nevertheless still no federal law banning the practice. 

Ultimately, the documentary is about consent and bodily autonomy — and the emotional impact when consent is ignored. Lucie Jourdan, a producing partner, pointed to the importance of respecting consent at every step of the filming process in an interview with Metro Philadelphia. 

“I know of myself that I have an ability to hold space for victims, and because I was so aware of the emotionality, there were times that I cut the camera if it was too much, knowing that I would lose precious moments that were really powerful,” she said. “I didn’t want them to feel violated at all, that was already the premise of this film — they were violated.” 

At its core, “Our Father” is a lesson for any future true-crime documentaries — that such stories are strongest when their victims are front and center. While the execution muddies the film’s message, the power of its subjects shines through the clouds.

Audrey Wang profile
Audrey Wang | Editor-in-Chief

Audrey Wang is a Trinity junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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