Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What Child Is This?

Old concepts of what constitutes a nuclear family are rapidly changing. Whether one examines the growing urge among same-sex couples to adopt or the use of fertility drugs and in-vitro fertilization to create oversized families like that of Nadya Suleman (the notorious Octomom), what was once referred to as "the new addition" has taken on new meanings.

Is it any wonder that, as our concepts of family have changed, so have our reactions to how children develop? From childhood acts of rebellion to aggressive periods of acting out, from questionable alliances to teen suicides, children continue to surprise us with the intensity of their feelings, their choices of friends, and their low self-esteem.

Several recent screenings at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival (as well a one-act play seen during the recent Bay Area One Acts Festival) demonstrate how children continue to amaze us.

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In 1979, the Chinese government took a new approach to birth control by initiating a policy of one child per family. Chinese citizens were required to obtain a birth certificate before the births of their children. Those who had more than one child would either be taxed up to 50% of their income or punished by losing their jobs.

Daughters (ChloƩ Zhao's 10-minute video, which had its world premiere at this year's San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival) looks at a rural family trying to find their way out of a domestic crisis: They already have two daughters.

Maple is 14 years old. Her younger sister is probably around 8 or 9. Although the two girls are extremely close, a sister-in-law who lives with them is due to deliver a baby boy in a few months.

Having overheard her parents' discussions, Maple is painfully aware that she will probably be married off to a sick, elderly man who needs a new wife. An introductory visit, during which the old man's hands shake so badly that he can barely hold a teacup, frightens the teenager and Maple struggles to find a way out of the impending arranged marriage.

In an act of desperation, she bundles up her younger sister and takes her out onto the tundra, intending to leave her there to die. As the child happily plays with some twigs, Maple tries to run away and leave her sister in the middle of nowhere, but quickly discovers that she can't make that kind of sacrifice. Instead, she consents to the arranged marriage.

The film ends with Maple in traditional wedding garb, being carried to the old man's house in an elaborate sedan chair. Zhao's film is notable for the poignancy of Maple's predicament as well as its magnificent vistas of rural China. Here's a teaser:

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Many Chinese infants end up in state-run orphanages. From 2000-2008, China was the leading source of children for international adoptions by American families (nearly 70,000 Chinese children are now being raised in the United States).

Those who adopt infants get a fresh start. For those, however, who adopt older Chinese children, a wealth of cultural issues accompany the process of assimilating an adopted child into one's family.

In 2007 Donna and Jeff Sadowsky submitted their dossier to adopt eight-year old Fang Sui Yong from Guangzhou, China. Donna had previously given birth to two boys (one of whom was about to be bar mitzvahed). The Long Island couple had previously adopted a Chinese girl (Darah), who was eager to have a Chinese sister but wanted to be sure that she would always be the younger of the two sisters.

Donna Sadowsky and Fang Sui Yong meet for the first time.

Stephanie Wang-Breal's documentary, Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You Mommy) follows Donna and her father, Marty Hochman, as they travel to Guangzhou and make preparations to meet Fang Sui Yong. Loaded with presents for the child's foster family, as well as some of the bureaucrats who have helped to make the adoption possible, they soon discover an interesting challenge. Not only does the child speak only Chinese, Fang Sui Yong is frightened, moody, and at times most uncooperative -- just like any other eight year old kid.

Fang Sui Yong's foster parents fully embrace the Sadowskys' desire to adopt the young girl, knowing that it will lead to bigger and better opportunities than they could ever provide for her. With cell phones and Skype available to both families, plans are made to keep in touch on a regular basis.

However, as they prepare for the long flight back to JFK, Donna runs up against a wall of noncommunication from the frightened and moody child. Her attempts to speak to Fang Sui Yong in English are about as successful as trying to get a cat to follow commands.

Faith (Fang Sui Yong) with her foster parents in Guangzhou

By the time Donna and her new daughter arrive home, everyone is nervous and exhausted. What follows is a fascinating period of adjustment as Fang Sui Yong (now called Faith) begins to adjust to her American family. Soon she is speaking primarily in English and having trouble communicating with her foster family in Chinese. Curiously enough, one of the few people available who can speak to Faith in Chinese is the filmmaker.

Jeff, Darah and Jason Sadowsky greet Donna and
Faith Sadowsky and Marty Hochman at the airport.

Of particular interest is Donna's meeting with Dr. Amanda Baden, whose practice has been built on counseling families involved in international and transracial adoptions. Wo Ai Ni Mommy is scheduled to be shown in August 2010 as part of the POV (Point of View) series on PBS. Here's the trailer:

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Moving westward from Long Island to Queens, a new short stars 14-year-old Humira Khan (who comes from a Bangladeshi Muslim family), 15-year-old Shweta Pariya (who arrived from Bombay two years ago and lives on Main Street in Flushing), and 17-year-old Damandeep "Daman"Kaur (who comes from a Punjabi Sikh family living in Elmhurst). Fine Threads is a fascinating documentary made by the same people who are its subjects so that they can explain how, as young women, they are coping with the tug of war between the cultural influences dominating their lives. You can watch the entire 12-minute film in the following clip:

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Over on the West Coast, a mockumentary written and directed by John Manal Castro actually provided the inspiration for Gene Cajayon's full-length feature, The Debut. In ten short minutes, Diary of a Gangsta Sucka pokes fun at a young thug's supposed 15 minutes of fame. Hyped as an exclusive interview with unprecedented full access, the camera follows Junior (Fred Perdito) through 24 hours as a Filipino American gangsta wannabe on the streets of Long Beach.

While trying to act tough for the camera, Junior must tolerate the presence of his nagging mother (Ester Pulido), who wants to be sure that the cameraman gets something to eat. Junior's lame attempt to explain the usefulness of his baggy clothes is countered by his mother's protestations that Junior is not in a gang -- "He's a good boy, he just has a lot of friends." Others in the cast include Jeanne Aguinaldo as Junior's sister, Brad Bagasao as Professor Bonifacio (a would-be expert on gang behavior), and Darren Littlejohn as Officer Cracker.

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There's no doubt that Suzi Yoonessi's new coming-of-age film, Dear Lemon Lima, looks gorgeous and knows where it's coming from. The only problem is that, if you're not the kind of teenage girl who looks to the messages written on candy hearts for the answers to emotional crises, this film might not be for you. This is more than just a chick flick. Consider it chick lit for chicklets.

Savanah Wiltfong stars as Vanessa Lemor, a confused young student at a private academy who is hopelessly in love with an unattainable boy. She has also been awarded a minority scholarship.

Vanessa is the kind of girl who gets picked last whenever students are chosen for various teams (and when she does get chosen, it's usually because Philip feels sorry for her). Unlike the perky, blonde Megan Kennedy (Meaghan Jette Martin), Vanessa has few friends at school.

The object of her obsessive affection, Philip Georgey (Shane Topp), is not just a legacy student at Nichols Academy. He's an obnoxious, privileged twit who doesn't want Vanessa calling him pet names (not even in sign language) in front of the other students. Fluent in French after having spent the summer abroad, Philip is very much in love with himself, his rank, and his future (which most certainly does not include any kind of romantic attachment to Vanessa).

To make matters worse, Vanessa's single mother (Eleanor Hutchins) thinks Philip is a stuck-up little jackass. Her gym teacher, Coach Roach (Elaine Hendrix), has so much testosterone coursing through her veins that she could scare the bejesus out of Jane Lynch's manipulative Sue Sylvester on Glee.

If all that weren't enough to ruin Vanessa's school days, Principal Applebomb (Beth Grant) -- who seems like the kind of uptight conservative whose nipples get hard at the mere thought of white children getting introduced to multiculturalism at her school -- has made Vanessa stand out because she is part Yup’ik.

Dear Lemon Lima is one of the few films I have seen whose production notes intrigued me far more than its story line:
"From the outset of Dear Lemon Lima, it was imperative to us that the Alaskan Native elements were authentic and that we garnered community support by approaching the 13 tribal councils in Alaska. Our initial inclination was to shoot the film in Fairbanks, Alaska, but because of budgetary constraints, we chose to shoot in Seattle, Washington, which has comparable breathtaking landscape and a thriving Alaskan Native community.

We wanted every Alaska Native teenage girl to know about the film and have the opportunity to audition. A glimmer of hope arose when a young girl from Eagle River, a small town an hour outside of Anchorage, posted an audition tape of herself on YouTube after receiving an email from the Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, Alaska.

Our lead character is played by half-Yup’ik Savanah Wiltfong who is familiar with Yup’ik dance and the WEIO (World Eskimo Indian Olympic) games. She had been in a few small productions at her middle school, but beyond that had no other acting experience. The film features WEIO games such as the blanket toss, the stick pull, ear pull, and high kick. These “props” are not easily reproduced, nor are they available from any prop house.

The WEIO organization generously loaned the production these priceless items and brought the recreation of the games to a whole new level. The blanket toss scene features two walrus skin blankets from Alaska, which measure 15 feet in diameter each. These blankets are incredibly rare -- there are only 10 in the world -- and we were fortunate enough to have two blankets in our film.

The final challenge of creating an authentic presentation of an Alaska Native tradition came in the three dance performances in the film. Seattle has an incredible network of Alaska Natives and we were able to find Aleutian, Yup’ik and Inupiak dancers. The male and female leads in the film were taught dances inspired by traditional Yup’ik fan dance and Inupiak walrus dance. The film also features a performance by a 30-person Aleutian dance group who make all their own dance regalia by hand."
Dear Lemon Lima benefits from several segments that include animation, candy hearts, and shadowgraphy. However, I found the subplot involving Vanessa's neighbors -- the uptight Mrs. Howard (Melissa Leo) and her unconventional son, Hercules (Zane Huett) -- far more compelling than Vanessa's insipid crush on Philip.

A zealous home schooler with no sense of humor, Mrs. Howard doesn't want her undersized, red-headed son (who has the word "gay" written all over him) to play with Vanessa or any of his other friends at Nichols Academy. Even though Hercules loves animals, she wants him enrolled in manly activities, like a rifle club. Having gotten rid of her son's deeply adored pet bunny, the righteous Mrs. Howard seems like she is auditioning to become the Wicked Witch of Alaska.

Hercules is a young man with a specific kind of charm whose suicide rocks Nicholas Academy to its core. Seeing how his senselessly shortened life affects Vanessa and her friends lies at the heart of the film's coming-of-age story. Here's the trailer:

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Produced by No Nude Men, a new play by Stuart Eugene Bousel contained all the cooing, doting, and frustration expressed by a couple that has just brought home a puppy. The new addition to their family, however, is no puppy. Instead, it is a rather cantankerous baby grand piano.

Under Claire Rice's direction, Kirsten Broadbear and Andy Strong portrayed an upwardly mobile young couple with high hopes that the addition of a grand piano to their living room would bestow upon them the kind of societal prestige that does not come naturally.

Marra (Kirsten Broadbear) and Kansas (Andy Strong)

In Housebroken, Kansas and Marra's inability to control the instrument (much less know how to appease it) is demonstrated to great comic effect. Visits from their friends (as well as a consulting piano psychologist) don't seem to bring much peace to the couple as their worries about the new addition keep them awake at night and prove that, perhaps, they just weren't ready to have a child (oops, I mean a piano). The program notes describe Housebroken as:
"A fable that may be about hubris, adoption, snobbery, music, class, lifestyle, marriage, ambition, parenthood, insecurity, art and/or humility. The author admits that, after two years of lessons, he still couldn't play the piano and suspects he's not the only one."
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In many families, nannies and maids become an indispensable addition to the household. In 1962, when Stephen Sondheim's musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum premiered at the Alvin Theatre, David Burns, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, and John Carridine stopped the show every night with their rendition of "Everybody Ought To Have A Maid." Here is a video clip of the number from a production at the Saddleback Civic Light Opera in Mission Viejo, California:

Every now and then I encounter a short film which defies description. I doubt that even Stephen Sondheim could have imagined the maid who stars in Rex Navarette's comic gem, Maritess versus The Super Friends. As Navarette explains on his website:
"Did you ever wonder why, whenever you'd watch The Super Friends on a Satuday morning way back in the day, that the Hall of Justice was kept so nice ancd clean? Well, it was because of their Filipina maid who you never saw. We've all heard about the plight of all the Overseas Foreign Workers leaving the Philippines in the thousands just to find jobs good enough to send money back to their families in the islands. Many of them still suffer disgraceful working and living conditions beyond our comprehension, oftentimes silently. Even our own Super Friends can treat these domestic laborers very much in the same manner. This is one of their stories."
Thanks to the Internet you, too, can now meet this new addition to the Hall of Justice:

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