If you haven’t yet seen it going around social media, a new project recently launched, called Side by Side: Out of a South Korean Orphanage and Into the World. Having seen almost every adoptee documentary piece that has come out, we were honestly quite slow to this one, assuming it was like every other we’d seen. Once we started watching, we were blown away. The minimalism brings to the forefront the centerpiece of the film: adoptee stories. And those are more than enough to capture your attention, without fancy filmmaking tricks.
We were delighted to have time recently to sit down with the filmmakers for a Q+A. We were even able to share dinner with the #TennesseeKADs group! Read on below for our interview.
Can you briefly describe the project for those unfamiliar?
“Side by Side: Out of a South Korean Orphanage and Into the World” is a five-year, large-scale documentary film project. Encompassing 100 individual stories, filmed in 7 countries, 6 languages, 16 cities, “Side by Side” is an international journey through the personal memories and experiences of abandonment, relinquishment, orphanages, aging out, and inter-country adoption from South Korea.
How did you decide on a project of this nature? Was it intended to be so large? You have something like 23 hours of content, right?
This project started as my personal journey, as a Korean-born, inter-country adoptee. We all need stories to help us make sense out of our lives. But for adoptees, those stories about our origins, our families of birth, our genealogical history can be very hard to come by. For myself, it was very clear that no stories were forthcoming for me. Meeting other adult Korean adoptees then became my sole channel in the search for this part of my identity. Everyone I met became part of a composite identity, for me and my extended family of Korean adoptees.
As a filmmaker, it was natural for me to capture these stories on film. So I went to work, along with my wife and long-time creative partner, Julie. We started by investigating the viability of filming the stories of those who were not adopted—those who aged out of the orphanages. We were all once in the same boat. Born in South Korea. Abandoned or relinquished, orphans or social orphans. And those of us who were adopted…we all ask ourselves, “What if we had remained in Korea?” The stories of the aged-out are the answers to that question. We need their stories, even if only to help make sense out of our own lives. But finding them and convincing them to be interviewed wasn’t easy. It took months of work.
With a great deal of help from friends in the U.S. and Korea, we were able to identify 12 aged-out Koreans who were willing to be interviewed. We then began communicating to the world of Korean adoptees, through social media. Within a short period of time, I had conducted phone interviews with hundreds and hundreds of adult adoptees in the U.S. and in other major receiving countries.
To make a long story short, it finally dawned on us that we could potentially interview hundreds of people. So for the sake of budget and time, we decided to go to a limited number of cities, in the major receiving countries. Within each city, we would interview everyone who wanted to participate. Ultimately, we decided to stop at 100 stories. This was not some magical number. It was simply a way to stop.
The result was 21 hours of material, edited only for clarity and mistakes. Each story is its own film. In total, there are 21 hours, all available for viewing at our online video installation at sidebysideproject.com.
Ourselves a husband/wife team, how was it to work on this together? What did you learn about yourselves or each other?
Julie and I have worked closely together since the mid-1980s, as advertising creatives and commercial filmmakers. We started our own agency in 1989, and it grew into the agency known as Motive (thinkmotive.com). We sold that agency and retired from the ad business in 2012. There is no creative problem, no business problem, no human problem that we have not faced, and faced together.
But despite all of that work and personal history, the last five years has been transformational for me as a Korean adoptee, for Julie’s insight into my growing and evolving understanding of self, and therefore of our relationship, and for Julie’s insight into issues of adoption and race.
No 2 adoptees have the same story, but what through lines did you observe? Were there any general developments that came through as you pull the lens back on the interviews? General points that many of us hit as we grow to our understanding of being adopted?
What is striking, I think, about these 100 stories are all the variations on the theme of resilience. These are 100 very, very resilient people. At the very least, all of these people experienced the loss of a primary caregiver early in their development. Even as an infant, that loss is traumatic and changes how that infant will respond to their next caregiver. As an older child, or even as an adolescent in some cases, the trauma of that loss is obvious. But these 100 stories don’t stop there. Resilience wins out, time and again. I’m very proud to be part of this extended family of Korean-born, inter-country adoptees. And I’m proud to help tell their stories.
My favorite part about this project is how it shows the huge range in Korean adoptee stories. I think the outside world assumes there is one formula, but in reality, that is just not the case. Were you trying to spotlight that diversity, or did it just happen?
I wish we could have filmed in more countries…like Norway and Italy. In the cities where we filmed, we definitely got a lot of diversity, in terms of age, gender, age adopted, adoption experiences, upbringings, and adult outcomes. But it wasn’t anything we did. It just happened naturally.
What did Side by Side change your mind about?
It’s human nature to want to believe that your personal experiences and views are in the main. Learning others’ stories opens your mind. And when you hear those stories with such feeling and authenticity, it opens you up to real empathy.
You recently screened your first film festival, and also some adoptee events over the summer. What were audience reactions like? Did they differ between adoptees and viewers not connected to adoption?
I had no idea how non-adoptees would react to our short doc. I’ve been very surprised at the intensity of their reactions. Very emotional. Fully engaged with the film. Wanted to know more after the screening.
Of course, watching any of the Side by Side material with other Korean adoptees is a very different experience from festivals. It’s almost like being in some kind of mind-meld, with the same reactions by nearly everyone in the audience, all at the same time. It’s really an affirming experience.
What do you hope viewers take from the project?
For mainstream audiences, I hope we change the narrative of inter-country adoption, expanding it beyond the over simplistic and reductive themes of rescue and compassion, and well beyond what people read about Angelina Jolie and Madonna.
Do you think you’ll undertake another project like this?
Honestly, I really don’t know. We’re still right in the middle of this one, and working hard to grow our audience as much as we possibly can.
How/where can people watch Side by Side?
The full, unedited project can be seen at sidebysideproject.com. After the festival year, and after we’ve cleared the rules for premiering, we’ll look at various ways to stream our short film online. For now, we’ll continue with private screenings at various community events, adoptee and professional conferences. You can find out about those on the “Events” page at sidebysideproject.com. And at some point in 2019, we’ll premiere a multi-screen exhibit, featuring 10 new edited short films from Side by Side.
Special thanks to Glenn & Julie Morey for their willingness to chat with us!
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