"I am a child stuck between two countries," says 15-year-old Fang "Jenni" Lee in the insightful new documentary "Somewhere Between." Adopted at age 5 and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she is one of roughly 80,000 girls who have come to the U.S. since China first began allowing foreign adoptions in 1992.
The first generation of these young women is now entering adulthood (and they are primarily women, owing to the Chinese preference for sons), and they find themselves grappling with a complex sense of self. "I don't think it makes me Chinese-American," Lee says to the camera thoughtfully. "It definitely doesn't make me American. And it doesn't make me absolutely Chinese. So I guess I'm kind of confused about my identity."
Filmmaker and Chicago native Linda Goldstein Knowlton (herself an adoptive parent of a daughter from China, now 7) focuses on a small group of charismatic teen girls from across the country who are working through these conflicted emotions. Two of them (Fang and Jenna Cook) come to Chicago this weekend with Goldstein Knowlton for post-show discussions at the Music Box Theatre.
"I'm always searching for a way to compensate for the fact that I'm a girl and that I was probably poor and that maybe for some reason I wasn't good enough," Cook says in the film, which is especially strong when capturing these kinds of mental gymnastics, which often include the fervent hope that they were at least placed at an orphanage, rather than abandoned in the street (as many were).
Earlier this week, I reached Goldstein Knowlton at her home in Los Angeles to talk about the film. "One of the reasons they wanted to participate was because they said no one ever asked them about these things," she said of the girls. A seasoned producer of narrative features, Goldstein Knowlton opened up about her decision to ditch what she called "the Hollywood BS" and embark on her first documentary, "The World According to Sesame Street," which looked at various international co-productions of the show in places like Kosovo and South Africa.
"Somewhere Between" is her second film as a director. What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation with her.
Q: You spent a number of years producing some pretty high-profile scripted films, so how did you make the transition to documentaries?
A: I was a little burnt out. I had produced four movies in a short span of time. I was in preproduction on "Whale Rider" when I was in postproduction on "The Shipping News." And "Mumford" and "Crazy in Alabama" were greenlit on the exact same day and started within a week of each other.
Q: The stereotype about Hollywood is that so much of what goes on behind the scenes is just absurd. Is there less of that smarmy, lying-to-your-face type of stuff happening in the world of documentaries? Is it more "pure" in some sense?
A: Pure-ish, or maybe pure with an asterisk. That's the thing. I was burnt out on the whole bull--- of the bull----, because it's really full-on. A lot of that stereotypical stuff is true. So I wanted to take a break. I was figuring out what to do with myself and I had lunch with Joan Ganz Cooney, who started "Sesame Street." She was talking about the program's international co-productions and I thought, that's a documentary.
The process really appealed to me because it was more pure. And I have more control. Having been through the process in Hollywood for a long time, the studio is a bank, basically, and you're making widgets. And I had gotten so far away from the storytelling that I wanted to do. Going into documentary felt like a better chance to tell the story that I wanted to tell.
So there's far less BS going on, but you don't have the bank. Part of being a producer is finding the money, but finding the money for documentaries versus finding the money for scripted films is a gazillion times harder.
Q: What did the film cost?
A: The budget of the film was over $500,000 and less than a million, that's what I'll say. It cost a lot because we traveled abroad four times, and I made about 15 or 20 trips within the United States. Travel actually was really quite expensive, and I'm still raising money to pay for the film. So if anybody wants to make a tax-deductible contribution, that would be awesome. I raised $100,000 on Kickstarter, and that was purely for distribution costs.
Q: It's so difficult for these girls to gain any traction if they want to find their birth parents in China. In many cases, the records simply do not exist. But one of the girls you focus on, Haley Butler, actually finds her biological family and you were there to film their reunion in China. Haley has such an inscrutable expression on her face, it's hard to know what she's thinking and you sense her confusion. As a filmmaker, this is exactly what you want to capture, but I wonder if you ever worry that, at some point in the future, Haley might look back and wish she had kept that moment private.
A: She was in shock, her family was in shock. Everyone in that room, including the crew, we were all in shock. So the inscrutable look on her face was really her trying to figure out how to process her feelings. And the truth is, it's a years-long process — there's no way anyone could process things immediately in that room.
When we were going to that reunion, she told me ahead of time that her intention was to hold it together because she didn't want to make either of her mothers feel bad. She did not want to show emotion, she wanted to really hold it together. What she has said since — and who knows how she'll feel later — but she is actually grateful that it's on film because she was so in shock in the moment, at the time. When she and her mom watched the film, they felt like they were experiencing the moment for the first time.
Q: You've said the idea for the documentary was inspired by curiosity about your own daughter's path as she grows up. What comes through in the film is that no matter how understanding the adoptive family is, you can't prevent some of this angst. But at least now you have the foreknowledge of what your daughter might experience as an adolescent.
A: I know. See, now I wish I did a film about 7-year-olds! Where's that insight?
Q: You're daughter is probably a bit young to watch the movie.
A: I said, "You know, it's kind of a grown-up movie," and she goes, "Yeah, I bet there's a lot of blah, blah, blah in it." So, that's her perception of grown-up movies: People talking too much.
It's so funny, this morning I was thinking, here's this film about identity — and what is my identity? I totally identify myself as being from Chicago. It's a huge part of my identity, and I think part of it was moving away as an adolescent when I was 13. It was like, wait: I am from Chicago. Moving to someplace so unfamiliar — I moved to San Diego — and everything about it was so unfamiliar that it made me grasp that Midwest identity that much more.
"Somewhere Between" opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton and two stars of the film, Fang Lee and Jenna Cook, will be at the following screenings: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Joel Hodgson, the man behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 — the TV series that perfected the art of running commentary of B-movies — brings his new one-man show, "Riffing Myself," to Chicago at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, preceded by a 4 p.m. screening of an MST3K episode. At the Mayne Stage. The show focuses on Hodgson's career and the making of what would become one of Comedy Central's most iconic cult hits. Go to maynestage.com.
If you're looking for the next environmental crisis to freak you out, the very real possibility of a 21st century global water shortage is addressed with calm but firm evidence in the documentary "Last Call at the Oasis," which receives its Chicago premiere at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday under the auspices of Chicago Filmmakers. At Columbia College Chicago. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
The pastel, two-dimensional style of animation in the short film "Snowflakes and Carrots" brings to mind the illustrated pages of a children's book come to life. The story of a little girl who nicks the carrot noses off the faces of snowmen is charming and simple and just four minutes long. The Canadian short will screen with eight others in a program called "Snow Cool," 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Facets as part of the cinema's family film series. Go to facets.org.
A better Van Sant
Director Gus Van Sant's latest film, the Matt Damon-John Krasinski fracking pic "Promised Land," is in theaters now, but Tribune critic Michael Phillips preferred Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" from 2007: "Young men, photographed from an adoring distance as they glide through their befogged lives while unknown terrors — a school shooting, an accidental homicide or a sexual awakening — lie in wait: This is the landscape of director Gus Van Sant." Playing at 7 and 9 p.m. Wednesday at Doc Films at the University of Chicago. Go to docfilms.uchicago.edu.