August 8, 2012

Chinese Roots, American Homes: 'Somewhere Between' Explores Identity and Growing Up Among Teen Adoptees

 

When Linda Goldstein Knowlton adopted her now seven-year-old daughter, Ruby, from China, she knew that one day Ruby would have some questions that her mother might not be able to answer. As Somewhere Between begins, Goldstein Knowlton wonders, "How will I be able to help her build a strong sense of identity when there are so many missing pieces from the early parts of her life? To find those answers, I have to meet the girls who have already walked in her shoes." For three years, Goldstein Knowlton filmed four teenage girls who were adopted from China and now live in the United States, and the resulting documentary is an intimate, emotional and deeply relatable portrayal of four girls looking back, moving forward and growing up.

 

Fang "Jenni" Lee, from Somewhere Between, in Yunan Province, China. Courtesy of Linda Goldstein Knowlton

 

Documentary: At the beginning of the film, you say that Somewhere Between is for your daughter. How did she inspire you to make this film?

Linda Goldstein Knowlton: We were in the midst of doing all of this paperwork and in the process of looking into adoption from China, and it got me thinking so much about women, and China, and so many different pieces of the puzzle that make this situation possible. I just started having a lot of big questions, and being a filmmaker, I like to answer questions through film, so I knew somehow I would be exploring some aspect of adoption from China in the film. We adopted our daughter and went full-fledged into motherhood and releasing The World According to Sesame Street [her 2006 film] and finally came up for air and came to the one-year reunion of our adoption group. It was in San Francisco and it was so fantastic to see everyone not at three o clock in the morning, bouncing our crying babies, trying to get them to sleep and all exhausted. We went to a Chinese restaurant and the kids were healthy and happy and running around, and it was a really joyous occasion.

We were driving home, and I thought, "Oh, I know what I should do: I should do 7 Up." So I called Michael Apted, who is a friend and has been a wonderful advisor for me on my films, and said, "I'd love to rip you off," and I explained the situation. He said, "Be my guest, it sounds like a great idea, but let me give you one piece of advice: 7 Up started as a one-off. It started off exploring one question, and then we ended up following people every seven years. So think about what the initial question is you want to explore, and if you end up following them every eight years (I chose eight because eight is lucky in China), that's icing on the cake."

And of course it was the best advice I got, and I realized that what I really wanted to explore was one of the biggest times of identity development, which is adolescence. No matter who you are or where you are in the world, you want to fit in and you want to stand out. So many pieces go into this process of identity development, and there are so many unknown things about the beginnings of these people's lives. How do you start to process? How do you make sense of who you are? How important is the past as you move forward? As my daughter starts to come of age, she will have all these questions and I won't be able to answer many of them. There's a lot I know about being a girl and being a teenage girl, but I'm not adopted and I haven't lived that experience. I didn't grow up in a transracial family. So I just knew that this would be a very deep topic and time of someone's life to explore.

 

From Somewhere Between, a Long Shot Factory Release. Courtesy of Linda Goldstein Knowlton

 

 

 

IDA: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

LGK: Aside from raising money for all the travel? There's a lot of travel in this movie. That was one challenge, because this was the first movie that I'd made since becoming a mother, so the challenges of being a traveling working mom and knowing that I was making something for my daughter--the irony never escaped me that I was away from my daughter. And obviously I can't be everywhere all the time, but that challenge was overcome relatively easily because I gave each of the girls a little camera to do video diaries. For instance, when Haley went to put the poster up in China, I wasn't there because I fully expected nothing to happen, because that's what everyone expects. I knew that I had to parse out my funding very carefully, and to go to China would have been a very expensive trip; to go and shoot her disappointment--creatively and financially it wasn't the right choice. We filmed with her when she was making the poster and we talked to her about her expectations for the trip, so imagine my surprise when I get an e-mail that says in all caps, "OPEN THIS IMMEDIATELY," and it's Haley saying, "I think I found my birth family, and you're not here." But what was great was, it looks not so fantastic, but she captured the moment in the moment, in a video diary. And there was this great commentary from Haley as she was going into the hotel lobby to meet this car full of people who are potentially her family, and she says, "Okay, Linda, I know you want this shot of me walking through the door and meeting them." So after three years of being filmed, she learned what I wanted, and that was hilarious.

 

Haley Butler, from Somewhere Between, in Anhui Province, China. Courtesy of Linda Goldstein Knowlton
 

 

IDA: What was your experience like using Kickstarter to help finance your film?

LGK: First, a huge shout-out for the IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship Program, without which I would not be talking to you right now; having that fiscal sponsorship made the film possible, so I'm truly, truly grateful for the sponsorship program through the IDA. We used Kickstarter to raise money for theatrical distribution, which starts August 24 in New York and September 14 in Los Angeles. Kickstarter was also a godsend, with the sense of community that I felt of people spreading the word and commenting and strangers commenting to strangers and saying thank you. We had an angel come in before the 11th hour who helped us reach our goal. I was asleep when that happened, so I woke up to all of these e-mails and alerts from Kickstarter because all of these people on the East Coast had seen that this angel had brought us over the top. All of these strangers e-mailed messages of thank you to this person and that was awesome, just such a great feeling. It made the process fantastic.

 

IDA: Where can audiences see the film?

LGK: You can go to our website or our Facebook page to get all of the screening information; you can sign up for the newsletter to get updates; you can call your local theater and ask that they bring Somewhere Between to their theater; and the DVD will be available in the winter.

Somewhere Between opens August 24 in New York City and September 14 in Los Angeles.

 

Katie Bieze recently graduated from the Film and Video program at American University and works as a graduate fellow at American University's Center for Social Media. She graduated from Duke University in 2009 with a BA in literature and certificates in documentary studies and film/video/digital.