Share on Facebook  |  More Articles

Published Friday October 2nd, 2009 at 6:44pm

Original Article by Matthew Lamers and Shannon Heit

Behind the glamour of adoption, new beginnings and happy reunions, there is another, darker side of loss and separation for birth mothers, birth families, and adoptees that is often left out of the discussion. Popular culture mostly fails to take up the issue from the perspective of the birth mother. What factors forced the decision to give up her child? Were there other options? How has she coped since?

Filmmaker Tammy Chu asks those questions, but also considers the feeling of separation from the side of the adoptee and the sometimes life-long journey to find identity and belonging.

Chu, an adoptee herself, says these children are an undocumented and invisible diaspora that don't fall into the usual category of immigrants or migrants.

According to the Global Overseas Adoptees' Link, an adoptee-founded and run NGO, upwards of 200,000 children have been adopted internationally from Korea since the 1950s. But a more conservative estimate from the Korean Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family in 2002 put the number at 148,394. The ministry said that between 1995 and 2005, 78,000 came back to Korea to search for their families, accounting for 63 percent of the children who have been adopted abroad. Yet of those who have attempted to find their birth families, only 2.7 percent have been successful.

Korea's international adoption program continues, and according to government figures, 1,264 children were adopted from Korea in 2008.

"But it hasn't been talked about because I think that adoptees have just begun to speak out in the last few years about their experiences," she said. The media tend to leave out the fact that many adoptees are not actually orphans when they are adopted, and that they do have birth families somewhere. Chu believes that the Korean society as a whole has a collective sense of guilt for having sent so many children abroad.

"And I think that there hasn't been enough done to tell these stories. Generally a lot of TV shows are about reunions - they don't talk enough about the underlying causes and problems that force so many women to give up their children - like the lack of social welfare, and women's rights that forces unwed mothers to give up their children," said Chu.

The filmmaker's second documentary, "Resilience," is an attempt to fill this void. The documentary will premiere at the Pusan International Film Festival next week.

In the interviews she conducted for the movie, Chu said that mothers "had an immense sense of loss and regret and spoke non-stop about their children (that had been adopted abroad)."

The film has been a long time coming.

Rev. Kim Do-hyun, the director of KoRoot, an organization that helps support adoptees returning to Korea, first approached Chu to make the film in 2005 because he wanted to "make a short film about Korean birth mothers and the patriarchy that affected their lives and eventually forced them to give up their children." Chu said she felt compelled by Kim's proposal because she thought the story of birth mothers' had not yet been told.

Chu began doing research for the project in 2005 by interviewing social workers, adoption agencies, single mothers' organizations, government officials, including two former ministers of Health and Welfare, and birth mothers. She initially made contact with over 30 different birth mothers, interviewed six and planned to include three in her documentary. She said that the unifying thread between all the mothers is the devastating impact it has had on their lives.

It was during these interviews that she realized that the project had transformed into a feature length film, rather than the short documentary that Kim and Chu had originally envisioned. As filming continued, the movie also evolved from three stories into one. In particular, the film focuses on one birth mother, Noh Myunga, and her son, Brent Beesley.

In the winter of 1977 Noh had left her son with relatives while she left to find work. But when she returned, she found that her family had given him up for adoption. Several family members made the decision for her, she said, not thinking about the long-term consequences of what it's like for a woman to lose her child.

Chu felt their story would be particularly compelling for viewers and that the film would best be served by focusing on one story in more intimate detail.

Beesley, now 32, said his participation in the film allowed him to recover the long-lost bond with his birth mother.

"I am so thankful I got to be part of the movie ... it give me a chance to know a little bit more about my mom," said Beesley. "I hope this movie will bring some more attention to international adoption. There are so many things that can improve the whole process, and maybe this can be that little push to send things in the right direction."

Chu said she intends to include the other two stories in an educational supplement to the documentary that she is currently making.

Chu also hopes to eventually release "Resilience" internationally, but "felt like Busan was very fitting for the premiere, (since) it's premiering not only in front of a Korean audience, but also a lot of the adoptee community in Korea will be able to see it."

The 14th Annual Pusan International Film Festival will be held this year from Oct. 8-16. The festival was first held in 1996 and has since established itself as Asia's largest annual film industry event, often referred to as "the Cannes of Asia" in foreign media. At the Sept. 8 Seoul press conference, it was announced that this year's festival would screen 355 hand-selected films from 70 different countries, a record for the festival. With 13,740 seats and 36 screens at six theaters, the audience is projected to surpass 10,000 viewers from 55 countries. The festival will also be showing a record 144 world and international premieres.

"Resilience" was selected by PIFF to receive funding from the 2008 Asian Cinema Fund, selected under its Asian Network Documentary category, a true testament to the film, considering the honor is typically only given to Korean or Asian filmmakers.

Chu, an American, considered it a victory that the selection committee decided to recognize and award her as a Korean filmmaker. "As a Korean-American filmmaker, it's hard to get funding because they usually only support films by Korean directors."

"There should be more support for films by (overseas Koreans) because we also have an important voice in the Korean identity and experience. The Korean identity has expanded so art and funding should reflect that new plurality," she added.

Chu, who has lived in Korea since 2001, studied cinema and photography at Ithaca College. She made her first documentary in 1998, "Searching for Go-Hyang," or "Searching for a homeland," a personal account of finding her birth family. It was screened at international film festivals and conferences, as well as broadcast on PBS in the United States and on Korean television sets via EBS.

For their part, Chu says the adoptee community has been particularly generous and supportive of the project. The film recently held an online fundraising drive to help raise post-production costs and surpassed their goal of $10,000. Chu said she was overwhelmed by the way people in the community reached into their own pockets to support the film. The response exceeded her expectations.

It has taken the support of many groups to see the fledgling project to fruition. The documentary is being produced by KoRoot, co-produced by Nameless Films Collaborative, and supported by GOA'L, an adoptee-founded and run NGO in Seoul. The documentary's fiscal sponsor is Women Make Movies, the oldest and most established distributor of films made by and about women.

"Resilience" has become a passion for Chu. She has been working on the film since 2005 and has often self-funded filming costs, all while working in Korea to allow her to make the movie. Other collaborators, like editor and co-producer Anthony Gilmore, have given their talent and time because of their belief in the film. Full-length documentaries typically cost over $100,000 to produce, but her crew has managed with nearly half that.

"It's been a pretty large struggle, but that's independent filmmaking. It's worth it when you can make a story that people will be impacted by."

Chu says that in the end, she wants viewers to think more critically about international adoption, how it affects people, especially birth mothers and the 97.3 percent of adoptees that cannot track down their birth parents.

"Resilience" is currently still in post production and Chu's future plans for the educational supplement DVD and international distribution will require additional funding. If you'd like to donate to the film, or for more information, visit the official website at www.resiliencefilm.com