POV: Wo ai ni mommy (I Love You Mommy)

Wo ai ni mommy (I Love You Mommy) shows how hard it is to connect and also to disconnect, across cultures, generations, classes, and expectations.

POV: Wo ai ni mommy (I Love You Mommy)

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Fang Sui Yong, Donna Sadowsky, Stephanie Wang-Breal
Network: PBS
Director: Stephanie Wang-Breal
Air date: 2010-08-31

"She needs to learn to take care of herself." Fang Sui Yong's foster father nods in her direction, as the eight-year-old wraps herself around her foster mother. In turn, the foster mother smiles even as she confesses her sadness that Sui Yong is about to leave her home in Guangzhou for the United States with a new adoptive mother. "Of course, we didn’t want her to go," she says. "Even if it's tearing my heart apart, it's better for her." Sui Yong's new mom, Donna Sadowsky, watches quietly, not understanding a word they're saying.

This early scene in Wo ai ni mommy (I Love You Mommy) shows how hard it is to connect -- across cultures, generations, classes, and expectations. A few scene earlier, as Donna, back in Long Island, anticipated this moment, the filmmaker, Stephanie Wang-Breal asked the obvious question: "Are you guys worried about being able to communicate with her?" As Sui Yong is the second child they were adopting (the first is four-year-old Darah, also from China, adopted at 14 months), Donna and her husband Jeff have some experience with language barriers. "We use sign language, gesturing and pointing," Donna says. "Kind of like playing Pictionary without the drawings."

Certainly, as Wang-Breal's fascinating film reveals repeatedly, communication can be like a game, an exchange of ideas and desires, as well as a series of guesses and hopes and not always rational needs. They are layered and complex, and not always wholly conscious. Premiering 31 August on PBS' POV series, Wo ai ni mommy follows the ups and downs of the Sui Yong's transition from one world to another, over her first 18 months with the Sadowskys. It is, as her foster father notes, a journey she must make on her own, even as she is surrounded by adults (and other children) trying to help, or at least understand. "I can't help you," Donna will say repeatedly after they've arrived at Sui Yong's new home in Long Island, "If you don't tell me what's wrong." And repeatedly, close-ups of the girl's distraught face indicate that it's hard for her even to begin to say.

As Sui Yong adapts to her new mommy, her new language and family -- and her new "American name," Faith -- she is by turns frustrated and generous, stubborn and vulnerable. Donna, for her part, is insightful and patient, as well as frustrated and understandably looking for self-confirmation amid the emotional chaos. The film notes the challenges of the adoption process, legal and otherwise, as Donna looks at a photo of Sui Fong in her "finding ad," the notice that she is now, like other children at the city orphanage, available for adoption. "She looks a lot older than two in this picture," Donna observes.

Sui Yong's age is one of many uncertainties and surprises in the film. As both mother and child struggle to represent themselves, to make themselves understood, the film slides between their perspectives, as Wang-Breal sometimes serves as translator. This makes for some more layers of complication, as the filmmaker is helping to shape the experience of her subjects. Moreover, Wang-Breal speaks Sui Yong's second language, Mandarin; the child uses Cantonese when she's upset, and soon comes to understand that she can say what she wants and not be understood if she doesn't want to be. Or doesn’t think about wanting to be -- the question is always hovering, as to how language for Faith is a means of assimilation and conformity, as much as a way to express herself. Her resistance is understandable, even when her specific words remain elusive.

The film underscores different registers of comprehension in several scenes, as well as your participation in the drama. At one point, Wang-Breal asks the tearful, raging Sui Yong if she wants her to translate what she's just said ("I want to go back to China") while Donna waits to hear, her face expectant, apprehensive, and knowing too. As you wait with Donna, you also see what's being said in subtitles, so you anticipate he response while also feeling your own, apart from hers. Your shifting sympathies and efforts to understand are different from Wang-Breal's, but you share with her a sense of trying to put the story together, word by word, moment by moment.

These moments at first seem incoherent when Faith first arrives in America. Here she meets Jeff as well as her new siblings, the couple's natural sons Jason and Jared (who is especially doting and good-natured), and Darah (who insisted, Donna recalls, that her new sister be "taller" or older, as she wants to remain the youngest in the family). As the kids flock around Faith, the movie focuses on Donna's efforts to connect and also to frame their experiences, ever aware of the camera and dependent on he translator. At one point she turns to the camera to describe Faith's behavior: "If she doesn’t get what she wants, there's major hissy fits being thrown." The camera pulls out from this scene, the rest of the family chatting around the dining room table and Faith in the foreground, plinking on a toy piano's keys, less a "hissy fit" than an image of a lonely child.

Throughout her first year, Faith misses her foster family in China, and asks to speak to Mei Mei, her "Guangzhou sister," so they can share stories and giggles. Donna waits patiently in the background of these shots and in others, manages Faith's "fresh" behaviors with brief rebukes, and makes rules by way of seeming choices ("You can apologize or you can go to your room"). When Faith notes that she doesn't actually have a choice, she's at least partly right: her life has been reorganized for her. Faith sometimes appears overwhelmed by the utter strangeness of her new world. None of her family speaks Chinese, and Faith worries that she's losing her own Chinese (forgetting some words as she speaks with Mei Mei). While Donna observes that she's "slowly cutting ties," in learning English, a Cantonese translator enlisted during Faith's calls to her foster family sees, "She doesn't know which language to speak." As Faith pauses, the translator fills in for the foster family: "She misses you."

The Sadowskys are hardly blind to particular issues of transracial adoption, but their experience with Faith, who has a language to hang on to, is different from what they went through with the much younger Darah. They appear surprised when a counselor suggests they attend to race and racial identity as well as "the cultural pieces." Jeff suggests they provide Faith with access to bits of Chinese culture (like Chinese New Year and "Bruce Lee"). Wo ai ni Mommy indicates Faith's sense of loss as well as her assimilation. As she comes to feel more at home in America, she appears repeatedly in shots gazing out her bedroom window. Watching her from behind or in profile, the camera doesn’t presume to translate.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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