Meredith Lavitt & Joseph Beyer
Sundance Institute’s Film Forward project landed in Mumbai last week for an ongoing cultural dialogue between countries, sparked by the power of film to stimulate conversations that might not ever take place on their own.
Filmmaker and Sundance alum Linda Goldstein Knowlton traveled to India with her personal documentary, Somewhere Between, a film that intertwines the stories of four teenage girls living in different parts of the U.S. who share one common biographical detail: each was adopted from China after their birth parents could not keep them due to personal circumstances colliding with China’s one-child policy.
These four strong young women allow us to grasp what it is like to come of age in today’s America as transracial adoptees who also happen to be typical American teenagers doing what teenagers everywhere do: struggling to make sense of their lives. Knowlton herself is the proud mother of an adopted daughter of Chinese descent. She is currently raising money on Kickstarter to release the documentary to more audiences in the U.S. and around the world.
The first screenings took place at the FICCI Frames Festival, a gathering of India’s professional film and television industries. Whistling Woods film professor Tanuja Chaturvedi generously presided over the Q&A that followed, which elicited questions Knowlton had never been asked before, despite the film’s multiple screenings at festivals around the world. What follows is an excerpt from the post-screening dialogue, which was, at turns, challenging, candid, and emotional.
Tanuja Chaturvedi: You’re talking about racism and gender so strongly in this film, and you are a woman and a mother of an adopted daughter—how do you feel this influenced the project? Was this film an attempt to find answers to the questions you thought your own adopted daughter would ask you someday and were you afraid of the kind of conflict she might go through?
Linda Goldstein Knowlton: I made this film specifically because I had a lot of questions about how she’d grow up in our mixed family, and I realized there were thousands and thousands of adopted Chinese teenagers in the world who were already going through these things so I thought, “Let’s go ask the pros because they are already experiencing this,” so that’s what led me to them. I didn’t want to stand back and make an intellectual film about what I thought the answers should be, and I did hope it would make me less neurotic in raising my daughter and constantly being worried.
I of course feel like I brought a piece of myself to the film. I like to say that when I produce scripted films, it’s my job to eliminate all surprises for the director, and with my work in documentary films, it’s my job to be open to all surprises. Where both genres come together is that you have to have a compelling story. And this story was of course compelling for me.
There is a sense of completion to all four stories and the way you edited the film is a narrative, a story, every character resolves in their own way. Is that a new trend in documentary to look and feel more like fiction?
It’s the confine of a story, I think; it needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. I always wanted it to be told from the girls’ POV; it’s not often that girls are given a voice, and here’s an amazing opportunity to do that. I got some great advice from other filmmakers as I was starting to work on the film: They asked, “Where are you?” And I said, ‘I’m behind the camera—that’s where I should be.’
And they said “No: your personal story informs the shape of this film and the story you’re telling, and just think of the impact it could have if the audience knows the filmmaker is an adoptive mom.” It’s unscripted, but you still have to be able to put it in a shape that people can take in. There’s not resolution cause they are still growing. There are no answers and that’s the best we can do.
It’s interesting to me because the film parallels some issues here in India, it’s a film primarily about identity. What’s happening here in India, in the generation we come from, is that we have more and more marriages that are mixed outside the community, or religion, or region. There’s been a lot of political hot winds, in Mumbai especially, because we have so many people know who are “half-half” coming from different cultures. It’s pretty dreadful to think that perhaps someday these girls will have to take a side, and which side will they take?
We shot during the 2008 Olympics, and people would ask these girls, “Which side are you rooting for —the U.S. or China?” And you’re right; that’s just a small, small example. One of the girls said to me, “A Chinese person doesn’t represent the Chinese government.”
How personal do you think cinema should be?
I was about to say all cinema should be personal, but of course you can have “popcorn movies.” I don’t know if you use that term here in India, but films that are light and fun and escapist, those are great. But when cinema is good, when it’s really good, I do think it’s personal. It’s because the filmmaker has put a personal piece of themselves in the story. There is some insight from them, some pain or joy that they truly understand, and they infuse it into the film.
When we actually watch mainstream American cinema, and we get to watch it lots. But I feel it’s this independent cinema that is going to open the window to really know what America is.
I think it’s all about the story someone wants to tell. And I think it’s about whether someone wants to tell a story or wants to make money. Are they making a widget, so to speak, that they know will create profit? Or are they making a film because they are an artist and they have a story they want to tell?
That’s why this Film Forward program is such an amazing opportunity and such a fantastic idea, because the more we can demystify the other, the more we can understand how similar we are and have so many things in common, the more and more we understand that, the more we can respect and appreciate our differences. And then the less fear there is. And we can come to understand each other and hear each other.
(Audience) Did the girls understand what they were participating in, or did you have to coax them out of their shell, so to speak?
They were giving a gift to all the people behind them. They knew by sharing of themselves, they were giving something that they themselves would have wanted. They wanted to participate to help other girls, not necessarily the parents. That’s what opened them up.
(Audience) I thought it was a very moving documentary, and I just wanted to know if the biological parents in China ever asked to have any of the girls come back?
No, they didn’t. That’s the first time anyone has ever asked me that question; you threw me for a minute. That’s very interesting. Part of it was that they were so joyful to know their daughter was alive and well, but now the girls have longstanding lives in their new families and are American. They speak English and live American lives. I’m not sure it would have ever really come into their minds. Some girls have gone back to China several times, but I don’t think it’s an attempt to reclaim that life they left, no.
(Audience) It was a very interesting film and a very interesting topic, and I’m not sure if I should ask this question or not, but I’ve been wondering: I knew a girl who had been adopted, and she was very angry and upset all the time about the idea of having been abandoned, and I’ve found myself wondering if the fact that they were adopted has caused these girls to be on an inevitable journey into their past, and not their future.
Do you think if these girls were actually left in China, and they actually lived an impoverished life, would they actually have been better than having a life where they are confused about their identity? Is it better to live a life where you are only struggling with means of existence, and not the question of existence itself as in “Who am I?” and living in an emotional vacuum?
I don’t know. It’s a very, very interesting question. As human beings, we are all faced with challenges, no matter who we are. I can only speak from my own personal experience and what I’ve learned from my own family and what I’ve learned from these girls themselves. I’m not a psychologist and I’m not a philosopher, so I don’t know that one can judge one’s challenges.
It’s like one of the girls says in the film: “My story is my own. I don’t need to compare it to anyone else’s.” These are four girls out of thousands and thousands and thousands, and this is how they have their experience. They are still normal kids. They have boyfriends and listen to music they like and all the things teenage girls experience, so they don’t actually dwell about their adoption all the time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They did because I was there and I had a camera and I asked them about it. I don’t want it to seem that this is all they ever think about.
It’s a very deep, deep question you asked, and I think what I want the film to be about, in the end, is the challenges we all face in life and exploring, simply, how we deal with them.