Possibly the greatest journey all human beings must go through in life is shaping their own identity. In Linda Goldstein Knowlton's latest documentary, she turns her lens on four young girls who were all orphans in their native China, thanks in part due to the country's one-child policy. These girls (Jenni, Haley, Jenna, and Ann) have all since been adopted into American households and lead seemingly normal lives. But they all share one thing in common: the lasting effects of abandonment by their biological parents and curiousity about their backgrounds. By following these girls across several formative years, Knowlton shows their great personal growth, their struggles, and why she was interested in the subject matter in the first place.
When did you first get the idea for this documentary?
I first got the idea when we were in production of The World According to Sesame Street, the first documentary I worked on, and that’s when my husband and I were preparing the paperwork to adopt our daughter. So I just had so many questions and ideas and a whole new world opened to me about adoption and China. I just thought: Well, I’m a filmmaker and this is how I explore questions and ideas, through film. I just knew there would be a film coming out of the whole process.
How were you able to find and film four such dynamic, intelligent young women?
There are several really fantastic organizations that were very helpful. There’s one called Families of Children from China (FCC) and they have chapters all accross North America and one in southern California. Through that network I started talking about the film that I was doing. I wanted girls from across the country and to show a real diversity of geography and a real diversity of experience in terms of what kind of families they come from, their attitudes, all of the pieces of the idea. I wanted to show girls with some things in common and some things that were very different. Families of Children from China connected me with Fang (Jenni). Then I read about a new organization called Global Girls for Chinese adoptees. They were just starting out and I talked to them about some of their new members and that is how I met Jenna, Haley and Ann. I thought it was going to take me a very, very long time to find my girls because there are thousands and thousands of teenagers, but I actually found them very quickly.
Were there any challenges in filming, due to the intimate nature of the subject matter?
This is the first film I have made since becoming a mother and it's such a personal film. So those two things made it a really different and challenging process for me. As a filmmaker, I have to have a certain distance or a certain objectivity, but when I would sit down and interview these girls I would see my daughter in them. Asking the objective and somewhat intense questions was hard. I’m not their mother, even though I felt like it. I had to let things play out because it’s real life and I was a fly on the wall. The other really big challenge was that I was inspired to make this film by my daughter to answer these questions for her and yet I was away from her for quite a bit during three years. The irony never escaped me that I was away from my daughter while I was trying to do something for her.
It seems as though these girls have grown up quickly as they have to think about very mature issues like their own abandonment and the conditions of the orphanage they were in. They also seem incredibly driven and involved in their social and academic community. Do you find that to be true?
I think it's the nature of finding people that are willing to be so generous as to let a camera follow them around in their daily lives and through very emotionally open and raw situations. They have to be comfortable on camera and there’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle of trying to find the person who is willing to go for this ride. They are all interested in their own communities and they're generous on a lot of different levels. They're generous in vonlunteering in their communities as well as with me as a filmmaker. It was definitely something that struck me and I loved it.
Has your daughter, Ruby, met any of the girls featured in the film?
Yes, she met all the girls at different times. She remembers some of them more than others.
Are you still in touch with any of them?
I am in contact with them all the time via texting and Facebook. Sometimes I make them email with me because I prefer it. We will all be a part of each others' lives forever. They are so special to me and it's just so amazing to see how their lives have changed and how they've grown. We started filming in 2007 with some of them so I’ve known them for a very long time and I’ve seen them go through wonderful changes. It's a real priviledge.
Many documentary filmmakers seem to struggle with how much their own image or voice is involved in the narrative of the film. Why did you decide to bookend the film with your own private videos and your voice-over narration?
What I knew from the very beginning was most important for me was to have the film be from the girls' point of view. It needed to be their voices and their experience. It wasn't until we were part of the way through and we were cutting together some pieces for grants that I got some advice from some very important and brilliant filmmakers. They said: “So, where are you in this? We don’t see you.” And I replied: “Yeah, you don’t. It’s not my story. It’s their story.” But these wise women advised me that it could bring a whole other layer to the piece if the audience knew the filmmaker was an adoptive mother, too, and living this story to a certain extent. So I tried things a few different ways and bookending the film worked very well and I felt it added greater light without over-inserting myself, because I still didn’t want the film to be about me.
So many young people, whether adopted or not, struggle with finding their own sense of identity or belonging. Is that something you can relate to?
I like stories that look at something very specific, but highlight something universal. With Whale Rider, it's about a girl in the bottom of the world in New Zealand, but it illustrated the story of progress versus tradition, which is the most universal story. I like being able to look at the universal through the specific. I wanted to look at identity. No matter how old you are you still look at your identity. I feel like there are these natural stages to your life that we all go through. I wanted to look at belonging and family and how we create our own identities. In the bullseye we have these girls, and now boys, being adopted all over the world, but for me, to have the film be successful creatively it had to reach the universal.