L.A. Film Festival: Four Chinese adoptees in search of themselves in 'Somewhere Between'
“Somewhere Between” is a documentary that asks a very simple-sounding, but ultimately extremely complex, question: “Who am I?”
For the film’s four Chinese adoptees in America, it’s a philosophical query as well as a biological one.
The 94-minute documentary, directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton (who produced “Whale Rider”), follows the journeys of four teenage girls who were adopted from Chinese orphanages in the 1990s.
In the last three decades, about 175,000 Chinese orphans have been adopted internationally, going to 26 different countries; 80,000 have come to the United States. Most are girls, because of the Chinese cultural preference for a male child.
The film is a personal journey for Knowlton, who adopted a 10-month-old baby named Ruby from China about five years ago. Emotionally raw, “Somewhere Between” has the power to draw both tears and laughter from the audience.
The film begins with Knowlton visiting the adoption center with her husband and taking Ruby into her arms.
“I knew she’ll have so many questions,” Knowlton says in the film. “Questions I won’t be able to answer.”
And thus she decides to follow the stories of four girls, each of whom is born into similar circumstances but with a unique journey of her own. While the filmmaking technique may not be highly polished, what drives this documentary are the compelling personalities of these four teens.
Jenna Cook, 15, a coxswain on her junior varsity crew team in New Hampshire, thinks her drive for perfectionism comes from the need to compensate for her abandonment as a child.
“I just cannot get rid of that 1% feeling in my mind that I was abandoned,” Jenna says tearfully during a discussion about what the word “abandonment” means to her.
Down south, Haley Butler grew up home-schooled in a devout Christian family, and she is the only one to find her birth parents with full support from her adoptive Caucasian mother and father.
“I’m a banana,” says the 13-year-old with a laugh. “I’m yellow on the outside and white on the inside.”
Fourteen-year-old Ann Bocutti in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, does not feel she has a “quest” to find her birth parents, but admits to feeling a pang of jealousy when she learns that Haley did.
And in Berkeley, 15-year-old Fang (Jenni) Lee feels a calling to help other orphaned children in China find families.
“Whether I’m in China or America, I’m always a foreigner,” she says as she wanders through the markets of China, self-conscious of the dialects she cannot speak. “I’m a child forever stuck between two countries.”
For these four individuals, the quest to discover self-identity is made more complicated by the fact that each grew up in a family whose members’ physical features are so different from their own. But to seek out their birth parents means potentially causing pain for their adoptive parents or themselves. Or it might mean years of endless searching, for it is nearly impossible to find one’s birth parents in a country of more than a billion people.
In that regard, “Somewhere Between” is poignant and intimate, allowing the audience to walk in others’ shoes and better understand issues that are seemingly skin-deep, but that go to the core of identity.
“I wanted the film to be about the girls' points of view,” Knowlton said during a question-answer session after a screening of the film Saturday. “I wanted to show that there’s no one way to adoption. I want to give people a window to look into another’s person’s life.”
“Somewhere Between” will screen again on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at L.A. Live.
-- Sophia Lee
Photos: Top, Fang (Jenni) Lee in a market in China. Bottom, director Linda Goldstein Knowlton filming. Credit: Courtesy L.A. Film Festival.