Finding Empathy in Somewhere Between, by Matthew Salesses
Somewhere Between. Documentary. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton. (Not rated. 94 minutes.)
I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie depicting an adoptee facing the particular challenges of adoption. I remember feature films about adoptive parents or about struggles between adoptive parents and birth parents, including one featuring Halle Berry and in some ways the recent Juno. But these are not movies for adoptees, or really even for adoptive parents, at least not for adoptive parents looking for ways to understand their children.
When I was in Korea years ago, after my own home trip, there was a popular film about an adoptee who goes back to Korea and finds his birth father in jail, My Father, starring an American actor. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I tried, but after a few minutes, I was too afraid that the film would misrepresent the adoptee experience, and even if not that it would break me down. I was in the habit then of pretending adoption does not define me.
Five years later, a documentary focusing on real adoptees came across my radar after I wrote an open letter to adoptive parents. I scheduled in specific time to see it. The film is Somewhere Between. Going into it, I felt free from that old worry about misrepresentation, though some part of me was still anxious and excited to see whether the film might cut deep enough to make me wonder who I am.
I was surprised to get a movie framed by its adoptive parent director, who begins Somewhere Between with her daughter’s arrival from China. Over a span of 3 years following the adoption, Linda Goldstein Knowlton documented the lives of 4 teenage Chinese adoptees. She made this movie, we are told, for her daughter. It can also be said that she made this movie for herself, in the way that movies explore a certain subject or story of interest to the filmmaker. The framing indicates the importance of this perspective. I noted, too, that what follows the film’s dedication to Knowlton’s daughter is a news segment on China’s one-child law. This is our entrance into adoption: China limiting births, a very Western framing (as opposed to Westerners purchasing those children and the power dynamics that make transracial adoption fraught with postcolonial implications, themes that go ignored in the film).
I wasn’t going to write off the movie based on its framing, though, and it’s a good thing I did not. The framing ends up being important to the arc of the film, which is only apparent later. And, I suspect like many adoptees, I am open to understanding this adoptive mother—a mother trying to learn something about her daughter. Knowlton’s background is inherent in how she sees the world, and the positive here is that she is using that background as a starting-off point to explore the adoptee perspective. Still, I was eager to get to the adoptees themselves, at last.
The film keeps the viewer on his toes. Or this viewer, anyway, this adoptee viewer. Our first introduction to Haley—who in many ways is at the center of the film, the youngest and arguably most out of place of the girls, in her Southern town—is as a self-proclaimed “banana” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). Later on, she also refers to herself as a Twinkie (same concept). She calls herself a banana with a nod and what seems resignation. I do not want to get stuck in the fallibility of reading the emotions we want to find into the statements these adoptees make—as in the NPR review where the writer, an adoptive mother, deems these girls well-adjusted and goes off on a tangent prioritizing adoptive mothers over the children they adopt and calling out the adoption community for its sensitivity to the “holes in the hearts” of adoptees. However, I do believe those holes are real, whether we learn how to live with them or not, and I do believe I can see “holes” in these girls, which colors my viewing of the film. I cannot, of course, escape the experience I bring in with me, my own framing. At a later point, Haley is teased by a couple of white students for being adopted, and when the boy finally apologizes, Haley says, “You’re not sorry . . . This is one of those times I wish I was white.” To me, she seems to say this with a conflicted heart, partly because of the arc built by the film (I’m getting there) and partly because of her expression, but also because I have said these things and felt that way. I have wished to be white, and have known and denied and yet highlighted the difference. When the other girl says, “You are white,” Haley responds, “You’re right, I’m a total Twinkie.” And I do read into her facial expression, into her hollow tone, into the timing after she has tried so hard to rediscover her roots, into my own past and my own experience, that she is still struggling with her distance “somewhere between” two nations. She seems at least to be questioning this definition of herself. I see, or I hope, that she will soon understand how this label doesn’t fit. I am full of hope.
Perhaps what makes it so hard for me not to read myself into Somewhere Between is that the major lack in the film is the kind of context that would help us see these teenage adoptees better as growing and changing and struggling with their self-conceptions. We hear Haley and Ann and Jenna and Fang talk about themselves far more in setting up their situations than to reflect on any transformation they undergo over the years of filming. For all the good Somewhere Between does—and from an adoptee perspective, which is so rare and important—it would have been nice to see the four girls reflect on how far they have come, on how much this experience has shaped their views on adoption, and on how the experience of the experience (knowing that they are on film and supposed to discuss adoption) affected what they said and how they changed. That is, it would have been nice to see our heroes reflect a little more on the arcs the film takes them through.
Some of these arcs play out too much off-screen, or too much off-screen at crucial points. Or when we get those points, we miss out on the depth of reflection Knowlton gives the girls elsewhere. For instance, Haley, who finds her birth family and returns to the village in which she was born, ends up giving some general advice to other girls who might want to seek out their birth parents instead of reflecting on how the trip has affected her. Ann, who becomes close to Haley, decides to search for her own birth parents, but by the timing of this decision the film seems to imply that the change has something to do with Haley’s reunion, rather than a deeper shift within Ann herself. Jenna struggles with her perfectionism, goes abroad to speak about adoption, and ends up quitting crew (a representation of her perfectionism and outward focus), but we don’t see her quit or decide to quit. Instead, we come back to her after this decision, and she recites an essay about a jade pendant she received abroad—an essay eloquent and moving, but more like a 15-year-old’s school assignment, structured around an object and a thesis, than the kind of honest, unsummarized reflection she is given room to express earlier. Fang’s arc is in helping another little girl, one with cerebral palsy, be placed with adoptive parents, and she gets the last words of the adoptees, describing her “Fangtopia,” a place where she has both her birth and adoptive families, a place which she says she realizes does not exist. Yet I wish we could hear her thoughts on watching the adoption—on what she felt as an adoptee herself and as the person who guided the girl to her new parents—when the adoptive mother cannot stop kissing this child she has never met, and the child cannot stop crying.
These omissions may be a matter of timing, Knowlton unable to be in four places at once and missing some crucial action or decision-making, but I wonder how much they are a matter of what the director cut, or never explored, or alternately, of what the girls chose to leave out. I wonder how much Knowlton’s “agenda,” dedicating the film to her adopted daughter, shaped the questions she asked, and how much those questions shaped what we hear from the girls. I wonder how much the fears and insecurities involved with adoption affected what the girls let themselves say. Most likely, I wonder too much, as an adoptee ever struggling with his adoption, wanting far too much from four teenagers who still have a long way to go on the path to understanding their pasts.
Recently, I was a guest on an adoption radio show, and at one point, the host asked about looking for my birth family. I didn’t know what to say. I knew my parents, my adoptive parents, would be listening to the podcast. I let the question pass. I wonder if some of the omissions in Somewhere Between are made out of fear of hurting people like the film’s director—that is, adoptive parents. On all sides of adoption, there is sensitivity. These girls are loved. I am loved. And often adoptees have a heightened fear of hurting our adoptive parents, due to the same shattering loss Jenna points to as the cause of her perfectionism: the loss of our birth parents. I know that a part of me was (and has always been) afraid of offending my parents because I am afraid of being left again, of being abandoned again, no matter how much the adoption community fights for the word “placed” over the phrase “given up.” Jenna, on her trip abroad, says that there will always be some part of her that wonders if she was “given up,” in fact, after all. This is a hurt we must deal with. During the radio show, another adoptee cited a study that shows that the trauma adoptees suffer when they are separated from their birth parents is psychologically equal to death—however that was determined. It is a loss that leaves many of us endlessly seeking love, seeking connection, seeking ourselves.
Maybe some of these omissions are made to protect us, to protect the girls and to protect the viewers, both those close to the adoptees and those who feel close to them after this hour and a half is up.
Because we do see a lot. Even if we do not get some of the reactions we most crave, we see an adoptee help another girl find a new home. We see an adoptee reunite with her birth father shortly after posting baby pictures in the town from which she was adopted. To Knowlton’s credit, as Haley meets her biological family and returns to the town of her birth, the film follows every twist and turn. It doesn’t shy away from Haley’s complicated feelings, and it develops the broader arc out from those complications. During and after the reunion is where I start to understand how far the film has come—and why it is framed as it is, beginning and ending with Knowlton and her adopted daughter. There are indeed some wise choices being made here; there is indeed a story of empathy being told. It is true that the context some may seek, the context of adoptees, may not be the context the film is best able to give, or set out to give. But the large-scale arc that becomes apparent in the framing—as we indeed end up someplace important that the film hasn’t yet been ready to go—may well be its great strength. Though we start with the privileges of an adoptive mother filming the story of adoptees, in following these adoptees’ incomplete quests and hearing their “answers” that are never really answers, we end in a new position. Though we return to the framing to close the film, Knowlton reflects on the film’s (and her) journey by telling us what she has learned, that after all the footage and editing, she doesn’t have answers, and also—and most importantly, I think, to the arc and to empathy and to where adoptees and adoptive parents can go with these narratives, this exploration, this film—that the questions are her daughter’s to ask. The arc of the film may just be to realize—and to demonstrate to us—that the choices so far have indeed been Knowlton’s, but that this prioritization is not the right place to end. The adoptee alone owns the questions she has to ask if she wants to get closest to a place like Fangtopia, a place without omissions. This is truly a realization that deserves dedication to Knowlton’s daughter. We start and end with the words of an adoptive mother, but the understanding of what that framing means has come a long way.
Ultimately, what I take away from Somewhere Between, the best thing I can say about it, whether I am reading what I want to find into the film or not, is that it made me want to do something for adoptees. To do something that is connected to my identity, to who I am and to who I understand myself, holes included, to be.