Geographies of Kinship (USA, 2019) [CAAMFest 2019]

“What happened and how did it happen?” Estelle Cooke-Sampson asks in a sit-down interview near the beginning of Deann Borshay Liem’s newest documentary, Geographies of Kinship. With this question, Borshay Liem continues to expand her ongoing research project and community outreach established by her first and second documentary films, First Person Plural (2000) and In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (2010). This trilogy of films presents candid explorations-investigations of personal experiences of international Korean adoptees, beginning with Borshay Liem herself, and the historical contexts and institutions involved in the international adoption of Korean children. With each succeeding film, Borshay Liem multiplies perspectives on the principal theme of self/identity vis-à-vis family and nation, race and ethnicity, knowledge and geography, in collaboration with an ever larger community of adoptees from around the world to help tell — sometimes even find — their own experiences. In finding/telling stories such as her own and that of Estelle through her films, Borshay Liem also tells another story: that of South Korea and the controversial role of adoption in the country’s bumpy road towards modernisation and democratisation. Though deploying a standard blend of talking heads and archival footage/stills, this same blend effectively elaborates and reflects the overlapping of the historical and the personal that has become a hallmark of Borshay Liem’s thoughtful yet empowering documentary filmmaking.

Embodying the historical and personal are the adoptees themselves. Unlike Borshay Liem’s first two films, in which she is the principal focus-presence of the narratives, Geographies of Kinship features four Korean adoptees: Estelle, Jane (also from the U.S.), Dae-won from Switzerland, and LenaKim from Sweden. The film presents their distinct personal trajectories, tempered by the different geographies in which they grew up, with their respective adopted families as well as their choice to confront their adopted pasts and even attempt to find — and possibly reconnect with — their birth families and country. Though interviewed separately, Borshay Liem edits together these four adoptees’ footage to delineate the specificity of their experiences while also connecting them to each other. A family album-type of intimacy and dialogue thus emerges, further fleshed out with archival stills/personal photographs.

In one sense, this intimacy and emotional punch contrast sharply with the historical element of the film, which consists of expert/academic testimonies that connect the dots between South Korea’s rise as the largest Asian exporter of babies from the end of the Korean War to the 1980s; the ongoing lack of legal rights for (single, unmarried) women/mothers in the country; the jagged pursuit of modernisation through a series of military-led dictatorships; and the staunch patriarchy that led both the modernisation projects and dictatorships. The historical is understandably a necessity, but — admittedly — breaks the flow of the personal. In another sense, the disruptive nature of the historical into the personal is not just a metaphor but rather all too real. As the film maps out in ever more focus the historical triangulated forces of patriarchy, government, and modernisation that conspired to make Korean children a top export — even earning the country the term “baby factory” — so, too, do the actual lives of Estelle, Jane, Dae-won, and LenaKim and the decisions beyond their (or their birth families’) control that led them to be adopted in the first place also come into aching focus.

To return to Estelle’s question: due to its wording, to who or what it refers is ambiguous. Is she asking about her own specific past, the socio-politicised/-historical machinations of adoption on the part of sending and receiving countries, or both? In this regard, Estelle occupies the film’s emotional and narrative core. As a Black-Korean adoptee whose Korean roots were not disclosed to her while growing up in her adopted Black family home in the U.S., her very existence is tied to the origins of international adoption in South Korea. In the post-Korean War era, the increasing U.S. military presence in the country via camptowns literally gave birth to a community of mixed-race children who were often abandoned or given up to orphanages due largely to the stigmatisation of people of mixed-race and single mothers on the one hand and the intensely patriarchal hojuk system that gave only Korean fathers the right to claim citizenship, nay, existence of offspring. For Estelle, then, the search for her birth family, Korean identity, and basic sense of belonging is that much more elusive.

With the promise of putting an end to an “adoption first” mentality in the 1990s postponed due to the country’s IMF crisis (diluting the powerful gesture of apology by then-president Kim Dae-jung to Korean adoptees), the burden, as it were, of initiating change (in perceptions/attitudes, in policies) is placed on the adoptees themselves. But they have more than risen to the occasion, aided by the abolition of the hojuk system in 2008: Jane spearheaded a project to change the country’s attitudes towards and legislation of adoption, while Dae-won forged a campaign to grant citizenship to adoptees. And Borshay Liem continues to find and tell stories to map seemingly disparate “geographies of kinship.”

Geographies of Kinship is showing at CAAMFest 2019 on May 19.