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New Film at IFC Center Tells Stories of Teens Adopted from China

By Andrea Swalec | August 24, 2012 5:40pm

MANHATTAN — The new documentary about four teens who were adopted from China by American families almost ended up being called "The Sisterhood" — but instead, took its name from the way one of its stars describes her own cultural identity.

"Somewhere Between," which premiered at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village on Friday, is the description of how 15-year-old documentary subject Jenna Cook described herself.

"I don't think I could ever consider myself fully Chinese or fully American," said Cook, who is among the roughly 80,000 girls who have been adopted from China by families in the U.S. since 1989. "No matter where I am in my life, I'm always going to be sort of somewhere between."

Over the course of three years, the film — which follows four girls from Berkeley, Calif., Nashville, Tenn. and suburban Massachusetts and Pennsylvania — shows adopted Chinese-American girls face racism in their hometowns, travel to China to connect with their heritage and grapple with who they are. 

Director and producer Linda Goldstein Knowlton, who produced the 2001 Kevin Spacey film "The Shipping News" and the 2006 documentary "The World According to Sesame Street," said the girls in the film agreed to participate in the project after she explained to them that telling their stories might help other adoptees.

"I told them there are thousands and thousands of kids who this [film] will be a gift to," she said. "Knowing that you're not alone can be one of the most important things." 

The subject of adoption touches close to home for Knowlton, who adopted her daughter, Ruby, from China in 2006. 

"I started to think about what it's going to be like for my daughter when she comes of age," she said. "[Adolescence] is a tricky time for everybody. How does that all balance out when you're adopted?"

Knowlton and three of the girls who appear in the film will speak about it at screenings at the IFC Center Friday night, Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening, and Monday evening. 

A premiere in New York is fitting because New York City is a national center for families with children adopted from China, said Mary Nealon, the co-president of the New York chapter of the nonprofit Families with Children from China. 

"In big, cosmopolitan cities you have a lot of people who are more diverse in terms of what they think about what makes up a family," she said. 

In 2011, residents of New York state adopted more children than people in any other states but California and Texas, according to U.S. Department of State figures. And more adoptees come to the U.S. from China than from any other country. 

Everyone from other adopted Chinese-American teens to middle-aged men who immigrated to the U.S. from other countries have said they could relate to the theme of negotiating one's identity in "Somewhere Between," its filmmaker said. 

"This movie is about something universal," she said. "I've had groups of [adopted] girls tell me, 'I can't wait for my friends to see it because now they're going to understand me." 

The film is not rated but is recommended for people age 14 and up because of some "intense" scenes, including a "difficult" reunion with a birth family, Knowlton said. 

Information on showtimes is available on the IFC Center's website.