by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Arts, Culture & Media Editor
“I cried” is the first thing I say when I begin my phone conversation with Linda Goldstein Knowlton about her new film Somewhere Between. “If you don’t cry,” the director responds, “then I am actually really worried about you.”
In 1979 China imposed a “One Child Policy.” The result, as opening statistics to Somewhere Between illustrate, is that “hundreds of thousands of babies were abandoned, mostly girls.” 175,000 of these girls now live in 26 different countries around the world. 80,000 baby girls were adopted by American families and are growing up in all 50 of the United States. Somewhere Between is the story of four of these girls.
Adopted from China when they were very young and uniquely told in their own voice, the film follows Fang, Jenna, Haley, and Ann – now teenagers in their respective hometowns – over the course of three years. We experience their laughter, confusion, and their struggle as they explore deep questions of identity, feelings about family, belonging, and experiences with stereotypes and racism. In the words of Haley, a 13-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee “I am a banana. I’m yellow on the outside and white on the inside.”
This intimate coming of age story helps answer some of director Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s personal questions surrounding the adoption of her own child from China in 2006. She chose to make a film from the adopted girl’s point of view because “the questions I had really had to be answered by the girls…because they are the ones living it first hand.” Goldstein Knowlton goes on to explain that “there are parents, there are adoption specialists and child development specialists who all have very important valid things to add to the conversation, but no one can understand the feelings unless you are walking in those shoes.” Somewhere Between gives girls a voice, and as the director acknowledges, “girls, especially girls of color in the United States, are not getting a voice all that often.”
The film is a gift for every one who sees it. The girl’s stories open our minds and our hearts. In early conversations with the teens, Goldstein Knowlton said to each of them “this is a big deal…it is very generous of you what you are about to do. To be open and honest and on camera and all of that, but the reason why I am asking is I want it to be a gift for the other girls and boys adopted from China and adopted people, adoptive families, and the general public.” The voices shared in this film provide an opportunity for all of us to better understand each other. “There are lots of conversations going on within the adoption community itself,” Goldstein Knowlton explains, “but until we can really cross the divide and understand how all families work and feel can we create a true dialogue and understanding.”
While in post-production on her first film The World According to Sesame Street (co-directed with Linda Hawkins) Goldstein Knowlton and her husband were filling out the paperwork for their daughter Ruby’s adoption from China. The idea for making a film came about when “there were a lot of questions that started coming up and being a filmmaker, I explore questions through film.” At the time, the director did not know exactly what the film would be about but she knew she wanted to explore questions about being adopted and adoptions from China. Naturally, after their daughter arrived, “all thoughts about filmmaking went out the window for a while” and the couple concentrated on being parents.
At the one-year anniversary of the adoption group her family was a part of, the idea came to Goldstein Knowlton as to how she wanted to explore all of these questions that had been bubbling for her. “Seeing all of these families and all of these girls one year later and thriving, it popped into my head, ‘oh, I know what I want to do, I want to do what [film director] Michael Apted did. I want to do the Seven Up! series, but I want to do an “Eight Up” series because eight is the lucky number in China.”
Knowing Mr. Apted personally, Goldstein Knowlton called him and asked her mentor and friend “would you mind if I rip you off?” Apted responded “sure, absolutely, go for it, do whatever you want to do” but reminded her that Seven Up! originally started as a one-off and gave Goldstein Knowlton the advice, “why don’t you really hone in on the question or the topic that you want to explore, and if you follow these girls every eight years that’s icing on the cake.”
For Goldstein Knowlton the conversation with Michael Apted clarified the question “What is my daughter’s life going to be like when she is an adolescent?” She acknowledges, and I nod in agreement through the phone, “it is such a tricky time of development for everybody – no matter who you are, no matter what your family, no matter where you grow up – and you know, it’s this big explosion in terms of identity development and it’s also this time where you want to fit in and you want to stand out.” As Jenna so articulately states in the film, “You never think about why you were born into a certain family but if you were put there it’s different. It’s like a different thought.”
This tricky time of development, Goldstein Knowlton explains, will be more intense for Ruby. “Everything that goes along with adolescence is going to add seven more layers of adolescence to my daughter” and she thought “there are already thousands and thousands of girls experiencing this, why don’t I go to the pros and ask them about it.”
The director purposely chose girls who lived in “geographically diverse” locations across the United States. “The diversity of geography that naturally goes into our identity development and also the diversity of experience that goes into how they feel about being adopted and being a teenage girl and everything that goes into all of that. I wanted to show multi-faceted experiences.”
Goldstein Knowlton approached several different organizations including Families with Children from China (FCC), an organization that has branches across North America. When I ask her how difficult it was to find such honest, willing, and open subjects, she shares that the process of finding the girls was relatively quick. “There is a chemistry that happens between filmmaker and subject. That was part of it, and with each of these four women we had a different kind of positive chemistry and I thought, ‘how could I not choose these girls?’”
Through this film the director hopes to pop people’s heads open. “My family and I, we did not know anything about adoption and the language of adoption before we adopted Ruby.”
As I listen to her, I begin to understand how the language of adoption has not been normalized across the general public. Using the example of divorced and blended families, Goldstein Knowlton describes how in the 1970’s divorce became more public and the language of divorce is now totally normal. “There are step kids and step parents. There is no stigma, that is the language we use, and [we] understand how these families came to be, without judgment.”
She tells me about what she calls “the classic supermarket moment,” and describes how it has happened to almost every adoptive family that she has met. “In line at the grocery store, you are holding your child and someone says, ‘is that your real daughter?’” We laugh when she shares what a friend of hers once did in response. “He pinched his daughter and said ‘yep, feels real to me.’”
Through the power of film Somewhere Between allows us to feel the experience of adopted children. “Here is the thing about adoption, it is both extraordinary and normal. It’s one way to create a family, one of many…To feel that your family is normal and usual, I think is a huge part of every person and every child’s security.”
Somewhere Between opens today in Los Angeles, September 21st in San Francisco, and all across the country this fall of 2012. Please visit the website for screenings near you.
About the author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. Born in California, at age 17 she moved to New York City, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She choreographed and taught with Jacques D’Amboise’s National Dance Institute and in 2000 returned to Sarah Lawrence to receive her Master of Fine Arts degree in dance. In 2007, Ms. Daniels attended the Los Angeles Film School and has since been working in film. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. She is the Arts, Culture, & Media Editor for The WIP.