Geneva Anderson digs into art

Adoptees piece together Korean identities that bind them to a homeland they never knew: Deann Borshay Liem’s “Geographies of Kinship” has its world premiere Sunday at CAAMFest 2019

Emmy-winning Bay Area filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem (L) and subject Estelle Cooke-Sampson (R), a retired general and state surgeon for the District of Columbia National Guard, at Cooke-Sampson’s home in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C..  Liem’s new documentary, “Geographies of Kinship,” (2019) has its world premiere at CAAMFest 2019 and is the festival’s closing night film.  Cooke-Sampson was adopted from a Korean orphanage at age 6 and raised in the U.S.  She is one of over 200,000 South Korean children adopted from Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-53) and part of a much smaller pool of mixed-race children whose parentage was a source of stigma in Korea.  After years of searching, Cooke-Sampson found a picture of herself as a child in a Korean orphanage, but she still knows little about her birth parents except that her birth father was most likely an African-American soldier.  Liem, Cooke-Sampson, and subject adoptee-activist Kim Stoker will be in attendance.  Image: Allison Shelley, courtesy of CAAMFest

Bay Area filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem’s new documentary Geographies of Kinship aptly has its world premiere this Sunday (May 19) at CAAMFest 2019, the annual festival that showcases Asian American filmmakers and artists and Asian stories from all over the globe.  Borshay Liem is an ARThound favorite.  I’ve written about her award-winning adoption documentaries “In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee” (2010) and First Person Plural (2000), both of which explored her own adoption story and the reconciling of her Korean and American identities.  She has a remarkable gift for weaving together personal stories to create a living tapestry of collective history and, through her films, she has brought crucial awareness of the tensions within many Korean adoptees over their experiences.

Geographies of Kinship explores yet another facet of Korean adoption.   Borshay Liem tracks four adult adoptees who were raised in foreign families as they return to South Korea to reclaim their personal histories and make sense of the complex trajectories of their lives.  The stories are all immensely captivating, revealing the lifelong emotional struggles that many adoptees (Korean or not) face around identity and the struggles that are unique to trans-racial adoptees.  She employs riveting images—black and white newsreel clips, U.S. military footage, archival photos, propaganda posters—to frame the complex political, social and historical forces that set the post-war Korean adoption machine in motion and its messy aftermath.  Stay tuned to ARThound: I interviewed Liem last week and will be posting the interview shortly.

Details:  Geographies of Kinship (80 min) screens twice at CAAMFest 2019— Sunday, May 19, 2019, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., Roxie Theater,  3117 16th Street, San Francisco. Expected guests:  Deann Borshay Liem (Director), Estelle Cooke-Sampson (Subject) and Kim Stoker (Subject). Purchase $20 tickets direct from CAAMFest here.


May 17, 2019 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to Adoption—in “Wo Ai Ni Mommy,” a Jewish family in Long Island gets a new member from China and everyone has to adapt

8 year old Sui Yong (3rd from left), a Chinese orphan meets with her foster family for the last time before she is adopted by the Sadowsky family of Long Island in Stephanie Wang-Breal's "Wo Ai Ni Mommy." Photo CAAM

How do you adapt to a brand new family member from a different culture?  Director Stephanie Wang-Breal’s first feature film film “Wo Ai Ni Mommy”  (“I Love You Mommy”) breaks important ground as she travels to Guangzhou, China with adoptive mother Donna Sadowsky of Long, Island, New York, to meet her 8 year-old daughter, orphan Sui Yong (“Faith”) for the first time.  

Wang-Breal acts as a fly-on-the wall documentarian, capturing the moment by moment complexities of forging a loving and healthy bond with an older child from another culture.  While over 70,000 children have been adopted from China into the U.S. since 1992 and everyone’s experience is different, this story is unique.  It is told in real time and captures the child’s perspective, often in her own voice.  Most adoption documentaries are told from the perspective of the adult adoptee looking back in time or the adoptive parents’ experience or even the relinquishing birthmother’s point of view.  This one is straight from the psyche of an 8-year-old who was abandoned as a 2-year-old and has been living at the orphanage and in foster care.  She has never seen a Caucasian before but has been told by a kindly Chinese social worker named Leila that she is going to have a good life in a place called America. 

As the film unfolds, nothing is held back.  We first meet the Sadowsky family in Long Island.  Jeff and Donna have two teenage sons and a 3-year-old Chinese daughter, Dara, who was adopted at age 14 months.  The decision to adopt another child was agreed upon by all family members and everyone’s view seems to have been respected.  The action then moves to China with Donna in her hotel room, a few hours before she is going to meet her new daughter, Sui Yong.   Her elderly father has made the journey with her.  Her husband Jeff made the difficult decision to stay at home and care for the rest of their children so that Donna could devote her full attention to Faith.  Donna is anxiously preparing stacks of hundred dollar bills and organizing gifts for the orphanage. Sui Yong’s care for 6 years has been subsidized by the Chinese government and Donna is paying $3,000,  a pittance compared to costs in the US. 

At the Guangzhou Civil Affairs Office, the first meeting between mother and daughter unfolds in the chaos of what appears to be a dozen similar introductions taking place all at once.   The tension is palpable.  A social worker carefully handles the introduction and Sui Yong is asked what she thinks of the name “Faith.”  She is then told that she will now be called Faith and she should call Donna “Mommy.”   She is told many times that Donna loves her and that she will come to love her Mommy too.   As Donna gives her daughter her first hug and pulls her into her arms, Faith is stoic, shell-shocked.  When given the chance to ask Donna questions, she asks only one—does the Sadowsky family eat fish.  To which Donna answers yes, “We like fish.”   A smile emerges.

What follows is a linear narrative—tracking moments of happiness, ambivalence, sheer fright and acting out, an unexpected meeting with Faith’s Chinese foster family, traveling back to Long Island where Faith meets the rest of her new family, and her subsequent struggles to integrate into family life in America.   Language, food, habits—everything Faith has known as young Chinese girl vanish as she struggles to adapt to boisterous Jewish family life.  Donna is a no-nonsense mom and establishes boundaries and expectations right away–Faith must learn English to communicate and she needs to learn to share what’s going on inside so that her family can understand her needs.  Dad Jeff is a very loving father who is keenly aware of the impact of his smallest gestures of affection or discipline and is very careful to treat all his children equally and with sensitivity.  

Over the course of 17 months, we gradually witness Faith’s transformation into a lively, outspoken American child.  Rapid immersion has had a remarkable impact– there is a noticeable set of cultural gains and losses and actual shifts in her personality and identity.  She moves differently, has different expressions and attitudes and now identifies herself as American.  Sadly, she has nearly forgotten her native Cantonese language but wants desperately to communicate by Skype with her beloved foster sister in China.   Of particular interest is the rare footage of adoptive mother Donna meeting Faith’s Chinese foster mother and family in China.  (In China, the law prohibits foster parents from adopting.)  We are poignantly aware throughout the film that this foster family nurtured Faith for several years in China.  This loving bond, her most significant source of attachment and love after her birthmother abandoned her, has been a healing anchor for Faith.  The Sadowskys recognize that and welcome the foster family into their lives as well.

In all, we marvel at the courage of the Sadowsky family to allow a camera to roll uncensored through this intimate and often raw experience.  Some very difficult moments are captured and this is actually what gives this film its real force.  When Faith does not get her way, she pitches a fit and says she wants to leave and return to China.  When she struggles with carrying her books due to her impairment, she doesn’t ask for help and is scolded when they drop to the ground.  At one point she blurts out to Donna “You are a white person and I am Chinese.”  Adoptive mom Donna Sadowsky has a strong parenting style.  She doesn’t always achieve immediate success but she is consistent, respectful and always listens to her children.   We never doubt her love for Faith.  As the film progresses, we witness the entire family trying to strengthen their bond with Faith and to protect her.  In all, what emerges is a very realistic account of the hard work, self awareness and love it takes to pull adoption off on a daily basis.  This is a deeply moving and intelligent film that probes the very heart of what family means while exploring issues of identity, cultural assimilation and bonding.  

 “Wo Ai Ni Mommy” is part of the year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, March 11-21, 2010, sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)San Francisco.  It has also been selected for the prestigious PBS award-winning series Point of View 

Screens— SUN 3.14 (3:30 PM, Kabuki, San Francisco), WED 3.17 (7:00 PM, Kabuki San Francisco).

March 13, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment