Sunday, October 9, 2011

Identity Crises and Missing LInks

Many people struggle to embrace their identity. For some, there is the question of accepting a sexual orientation they were taught to loathe and despise. For others, there is the never-ending possibility of being pulled over for the crime of "driving while black."

Such issues, however, have to do with a part of one's identity that is easily recognizable. Often, like being left-handed, certain traits are genetically-linked and unavoidable. There are, however, other identity crises that may not be so easily understood.

In many cases, the absence of a father figure can have a powerful impact on adolescents. However, with today's technology, the Internet can sometimes provide the missing link to a lost parent. Three new documentaries offer surprising insights into how people who have not always felt "emotionally complete" may be able to fill critical gaps in both their personal history and their psyche.

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John Luther Long's 1898 short story, Madame Butterfly, went on to achieve great success in David Belasco's stage adaptation and Giacomo Puccini's 1904 operatic treatment of the tragic story about a young Japanese girl who married an American naval officer. Having remained faithful to her marital vows, Cio-Cio-San is shocked to learn that her husband, B.F. Pinkerton, has married a white woman and only returned to Nagasaki in order to claim his son and bring the child to America.

For Cio-Cio-San, the only way out of the situation is to follow the inscription on the knife with which her disgraced father committed hari-kiri: "Who cannot live with honor must die with honor."

Poster art for Left By The Ship

Co-directed by Emma Rossi-Landi and Alberto VendemmiatiLeft By The Ship follows four Filipino Amerasians who were left behind by their American fathers after the United States Navy pulled out of Subic Bay.
  • Robert is a 30-year-old college graduate with a degree in English and a young family to support. He has channeled his anger about being illegitimate into journalism and often tries to help other Filipino Amerasians make contact with their American fathers. Robert is computer literate, has solid research skills, and writes a blog about his experiences.
  • "Junior" is a directionless 21 year old who has difficulty communicating with his mother and a violent stepfather. After dropping out of school, Junior joined a local gang and has been in and out of jail. When Robert tracks down Junior's American father and gets him on the phone, Junior is almost speechless. He clings to the fantasy that if he could only meet his biological father, his problems would disappear. He ends up returning to Olongapo with his mother.
  • Charlene lived with her American father for a while, but returned to the Philippines after their relationship soured. Now 18 years old, she has a close relationship with her mother. Although Charlene fervently wishes to be accepted by the Filipino society (and enters into a beauty pageant where she is cruelly teased for her looks), her teenage pregnancy limits future options. She is studying to become a medical transcriptionist.
  • Margarita is a second generation Amerasian who, like her father, is homeless. Although Alfred was conceived during World War II (thus making him one of the first Amerasians in Olongapo), he is unable to provide for his 13-year-old daughter, who collects and sells garbage with her friend, Jepoy.
Robert makes contact with Junior's father in America as Junior's
mother watches with mixed emotions in Left By The Ship

In a very strange way, their lives have been shattered by an act of law. Following the Philippine-American War, the United States took over control of the Subic Bay Naval Base in the late 19th century. The small fishing town of Olongapo, flooded with more than 15,000 women, grew to became one of the largest "red light districts" in Asia. Some girls were working the bars by the time they turned 14; others frequently acted as "wives for rent" who lived with American men and saw to their needs on a daily basis.

For many years, the Subic Bay Naval Base functioned as the largest American naval base outside of the mainland USA. In the 1982 Amerasian Act, Congress voted to grant citizenship to Amerasians from Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, and other Asian countries. Although the Philippines had been a United States ally for more than a century, Filipino Amerasians were not included in the Act. In order to become citizens of the United States they must be claimed by their American fathers.

In 1992, after Ferdinand Marcos fell from power, the United States pulled its forces from Subic Bay (leaving behind approximately 50,000 Amerasian children whose fathers were American sailors). Today, Filipino Amerasians and Japanese Amerasians are the only two groups that do not benefit from the citizenship provisions of the 1982 Amerasian Act.

Many of these people live in poverty and are discriminated against because they are illegitimate. Due to their obvious multiracial looks, those who were fathered by African American sailors must cope with racial prejudice. Some are even taunted with the pejorative term "Iniwan ng Barko" (left by the ship).

Charlene has her makeup done prior to a beauty pageant.

Over the course of two years, the filmmakers for Left By The Ship followed the lives of four Filipino Amerasians struggling with their identities. As they explain in their production notes:
"The children we saw many years back on the news have now grown up. What is it like to be an Amerasian in the Philippines today when your basic birthrights have been denied? What kind of future can you build for yourself? How do perceive yourself when everyone can see, by just looking at you, that your mother was a prostitute and your father abandoned you?
The personalities of most Filipino Amerasians are shaped by the fact that they were born as a product of a military strategy. Our challenge in making this documentary was to try to express the sense of loss and shame most Filipino Amerasians face all through their lives.  Lack of self-esteem, frustration, and confusion are widespread, and compulsion to repetition is very common. It was painful to see how our friends tended to believe what other people said about them."
Left By The Ship does not leave its audience or subjects with much hope for the future. Listening to the conversation between Junior and his American father (with Robert acting as translator) is almost heartbreaking. Here's the trailer:

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Audiences couldn't ask for a more fascinating documentary than Jerry Rothwell's provocative Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade, which will be screened later this month at the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival.  Guaranteed to make the heads of "family values" conservatives explode, this is film truly has something for everyone.

On one hand, there are the folks at California Cryobank, who collect samples of human sperm and help infertile couples to bear children (at least two of the film's stars were raised by lesbian couples). On the other hand, there is the aging hippie known as Donor 150, who happily masturbated into a cup several times a week during his twenties in order to get spending money.

Jeffrey Harrison in his R.V.

Launched in 2000, the Donor Sibling Registry allows children created through artificial insemination to research and (if both parties are willing) connect with others who share genetic ties. If successful, their searches may lead to contact with egg donors, sperm donors, embryo donors, or half-siblings.

Rothwell's accomplice/catalyst in the film is 20-year-old JoEllen Marsh, who grew up in Pennsylvania with two mothers and always knew that her family was unlike everyone else's. The only clue JoEllen had to her father's identity was that he was known as "Donor 150."

After finding the DSR online, JoEllen was able to identify a half-sister living in New York. Once her story appeared in The New York Times, 12 more half-siblings were identified around the United States.

What JoEllen did not know was that her biological father learned of her existence when he saw the article on the front page of The New York Times and realized that "Donor 150" referred to him. Donor Unknown opens up a whole new discussion about the moral responsibilities of cryobanks, overseas sperm and egg donations, and the fertility tourism industry.

Four of Jeffrey Harrison's offspring -- Fletcher Norris (1990),
Ryann McQuilton (1987), JoEllen Marsh (1990), and
Roxanne Shaffer (1988) --  meet up in Donor Unknown

In his lengthy director’s statement, Rothwell writes:
"Donor Unknown is a story for what has been called the ‘biological century’. From the human genome project to IVF, advances in life sciences since the millennium seem set to transform our relationship to the natural world and to each other, changing how we are conceived, born, grow up, cope with illness, and die. Perhaps these developments also require new ideas about what it means to be human and how our social connections -- families, relationships, friendships -- are defined. If that's the case, then Jeffrey Harrison (Donor 150), his children, and their parents are pioneers on one stretch of this new frontier.
Sperm donation has been used as a method of conception for far longer than the first recorded incidence in medical journals in the U.S. in the late 19th century. What is new is the ability of the donor-conceived child to discover the identity of his or her donor and to initiate contact. This raises some challenging questions: What does a connection based solely on genetics mean? Can it become the basis of a lasting ‘family’ relationship? Is it emotionally necessary for the child? Underlying the story of Jeffrey and his children is the industry which is developing around the technology of human reproduction -- which is very different in the U.S. from the U.K. Donor Unknown is also a film about America, made from a European perspective -- which I hope provokes us to think about the extent to which we want reproduction to be subject to powerful and lightly regulated commercial forces."
Jeffrey Harrison with his newly adopted pigeon

"I was drawn to this story because it seemed to me that, through an extraordinary set of coincidences, Jeffrey and his children were dealing with age-old human dilemmas (Where do I come from? What is my connection with the past? Where are the boundaries of my family?) in a uniquely modern context. Their openness and courage take us deeper than the obvious laughs to be had in a film about sperm donation. In making the film I wanted to approach the story through two kinds of journey: that of the children looking for their genetic inheritance, and that of Jeffrey discovering his new family of strangers. It’s a film that lends itself to cross-cutting between places as Jeffrey’s sperm reached all corners of the United States, and between the siblings, as they discover each other and share common experiences thousands of miles apart.
But for me, what really makes this story unique is the fact that Jeffrey is at its center: intelligent, eccentric, and goodhearted. I admire him for the way he has lived out his beliefs -- a true 'fringe monkey' as he says in the film. His comment that 'I'm not really a nine to fiver' is something of an understatement. When Jeffrey started donating sperm he’d moved to L.A. as an aspiring actor. But instead of landing a role in Hollywood, he ended up earning a living as a bit part in tourism videos, posing for Playgirl, and waiting at tables. Sperm donation at $25 (and later £$80) a go was something he turned to in order to survive. And thanks to his glowing profile, his sperm was popular. Now in his fifties, his life is very different from that of the hopeful youngster who moved to Hollywood. He lives in an R.V. on Venice Beach and his closest relationships are with his dogs and, recently, an adopted pigeon with a broken wing. The children coming forward offer him a new set of connections -- and perhaps a new purpose."

I tip my hat to Rothwell for crafting such an intelligent and entertaining film. In addition to exploring the standard issues of in vitro fertilization, he's let the children talk about how they feel about their identities, their parents, their newfound half-siblings, and their biological father. Donor Unknown is one very happy documentary in which curiosity did not kill the cat. Here's the trailer:

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Not all searches for a "missing link" have to do with a person's physical characteristics and genetic traits. Some searches focus on solving emotional and psychological mysteries that continually challenge an individual.

In addition to probing historic texts like The Egyptian Book of the Dead and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, students of comparative mythology, religion, and literature often immerse themselves in Sir James George Frazer's landmark work, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, and Joseph Campbell's provocative The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). Patrick Takaya Solomon's new documentary, Finding Joe, takes an interesting approach to Campbell's theory about the hero's journey in life by showing how it plays out in modern culture.

During his life, Campbell examined the challenges, fears, dragons, battles, and eventual return home of the "prodigal son" as a changed person, someone who had overcome great hardships on the road to becoming a cultural hero. What the hero actually overcame was himself -- and all of the inhibitions he had learned from his parents and the people around him.

A child confronts his "dragon" in Finding Joe.

More to the point, Campbell stressed that the person who "followed his bliss" would eventually come into his own self. As he often explained:
"If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are -- if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time."

A boy sets out on a quest to find himself

Solomon looks to popular heroes in contemporary culture to learn how their pursuit of less than traditional paths has led them to fame, fortune, and most critically, a deep sense of personal fulfillment and happiness. Using interviews with celebrities like physician Deepak Chopra, actress Rashida Jones, extreme skateboarder Tony Hawk, and renowned surfer Laird Hamilton, Solomon shows how overcoming a fear of failure leads a person to break through his fears and discover the freedom to just be himself and do things the way he wants.

The documentary features numerous clips from popular films such as Rocky, Star Wars, and The Matrix (in which heroes are tested and emerge triumphant). Solomon also uses a group of child actors to perform key moments in Campbell's explanation of the hero's journey.

The young hero emerges triumphant

Having spent 12 years directing commercials, Solomon -- who credits the popular PBS series entitled The Power of Myth (a collaboration between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers) with inspiring him to make Finding Joe -- notes that:
"Joseph Campbell’s work has influenced every major turning point in my life, including my decision to become a director. I wanted to share Campbell’s work with a broad audience and felt that the material in the series would be easier for audiences to grasp if it was told more visually (for example, with story re-enactments or simple visual icons that related more to modern life). Once I came to that realization, I felt compelled to make this film.”
The basic message of Finding Joe is that by taking the path less traveled, it's often possible to find greater happiness and fulfillment. If I were to examine my own life, the results speak for themselves.

My career path could hardly have been called traditional. For many years I "followed my bliss" down a very strange path. I enjoyed some personal triumphs, numerous setbacks, and several moments of abject terror during which I was forced to confront my own personal "dragons." And yet here I am at 64, spending most of my time watching and writing about film, theatre, and opera! Here's the trailer:

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