Aspen Filmfest: ‘Somewhere Between’ tackles adoption head-on
September 23, 2011
ASPEN – As soon as first-grader Ruby steps out of her Los Angeles home, the world learns something about her, whether she wants it to be known or not. Ruby is Chinese; her parents are not. Ruby has an Asian appearance; her mom and dad do not. For a first-grade girl, the fact that your birth, your family history, your identity, does not follow the standard story line, can be a lot to reveal.
“When you walk out of the house, your story is automatically public because you look different than the rest of your family,” Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Ruby’s adoptive mother, said. “That’s tricky: How much of your story do you want to talk about? Their privacy, basically, is gone.”
The complex identity of a child adopted from China into an American family is the core issue explored in “Somewhere Between,” Goldstein Knowlton’s documentary that shows at 5:30 p.m. today at Aspen Filmfest. The film focuses on four adopted teenage girls – girls because the overwhelming majority of Chinese children given up for adoption are female; teenagers because Goldstein Knowlton believes that is the age when thoughts of personal identity are weighing on an individual’s mind – living in different regions of America. “Somewhere Between” teases out the identity concerns the girls live with: that they are Chinese by birth, but living in an American world – American parents, American classmates, American siblings – in which, at least by appearance and history, they are markedly different.
Adding to the complexity is that, for many of these girls, the exact story of their birth is unknown. They don’t know who their birth parents are, where they first lived, and, perhaps most significant, why they were given up for adoption.
Goldstein Knowlton thought she had some time to consider how she would talk about such topics with her daughter. But when Ruby was 3, and in preschool, she began hearing how babies came from their mother’s tummies, and voiced the assumption that she came out of her mother.
“I thought I had another year before those questions started,” Goldstein Knowlton, who will be in attendance for a discussion following Friday’s screening, said. “But I told her the story, that she had other birth parents, that daddy and I got on a plane and got her.”
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Goldstein Knowlton realized that this was only the beginning of the discussion, and that the questions would only get deeper as Ruby grew older. “When we adopted her, we all became a family instantaneously,” Goldstein Knowlton said, echoing the common experience depicted in “Somewhere Between” – babies raised in a Chinese orphanage tend to bond immediately with the adults who come to make them part of a family. But Goldstein Knowlton, who has no other children, was also thinking ahead: “What’s it going to be like for her as a teenager? Her experience is going to be so different from mine. Every teenager wants to be different, but also wants to fit in. How am I going to help her through that time?”
Sure enough, when Ruby was 4, she began getting more specific in her requests for information. So Goldstein Knowlton began reaching out to the people she calls “the experts” – teenage girls who had been adopted from China – to arm herself with first-hand accounts of their challenges. “There are thousands and thousands of girls out there who have been through this, a lot of experts. Why not talk to the pros?”
As she reached out to the community of Chinese adoptees, Goldstein Knowlton began to see that maybe she could provide a resource as well. Goldstein Knowlton had been a producer on such feature films as “Crazy in Alabama” and “The Shipping News,” and had directed a documentary with something of a children’s angle – 2006’s “The World According to Sesame Street,” a film about “Sesame Street”‘s international co-productions, that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The personal investigation – trying to gain some insight so Goldstein Knowlton could help her daughter – became a film project.
“Somewhere Between,” which earned the Audience Award in May at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, intentionally focuses on girls from different regions of the U.S., raised in varying circumstances. Some have siblings, some have been to China repeatedly, some have searched out their birth parents. Part of the point was that, though there is a common thread to their stories, each child has had her own experience.
“There’s no one way to be adopted, no one way to feel adopted,” Goldstein Knowlton said. “While they share commonalities, they shouldn’t be treated as cookie-cutter products.”
Still, Goldstein Knowlton believes that “Somewhere Between” can open up a dialogue about adopted children. She firmly believes that Americans have a need for such a conversation. She notes that there are 80,000 adopted Chinese kids living in the States, with some 3,500 more added annually to that number (down from a high of nearly 8,000 a year a few years ago). “It’s like a city,” Goldstein Knowlton said of those numbers. She also points out that adoption doesn’t affect just the adoptive families, but extends out to classmates, cousins, neighbors. “But it’s something that people don’t have a language for,” she said.
She also thinks the film raises issues that go beyond adoption. Virtually everyone has a curiosity about where they came from, what their history is from birth and further back in time. The adopted children profiled in “Somewhere Between” feel that curiosity in a way that someone raised by their birth parents, with some idea of where the family tree originated, does not.
“We know where we come from. We take it for granted,” Goldstein Knowlton said. “But it’s a base human instinct to want to know where we came from. It’s part of that human curiosity. With an adopted child, there’s a different weight and meaning because their birth parents gave them up, for reasons they might never know. That makes children question in a certain way.”
Those questions can lead to even broader questions.
“How do we become the people who we are? How do we reconcile our past with our present, and then our future?” Goldstein Knowlton said. “The film is about adoption, but it’s also very universal.”