Identity Crises of ‘Faith’
Published on August 31st, 2010 | by Louis Hamwey0
Being human beings we are blessed as well as cursed with the ability to question. It is the very thing that has allowed our species to progress and create as well as made us cautious and uneasy. On an individual level, the question of “Who am I?”plagues us all; but for some the question is more complicated than it may appear.
The PBS Emmy award-winning documentary series “POV” returns for its 23rd season, with three documentaries which focus on the lives of adopted children who struggle with this issue. The three-part series within the series is entitled “POV Adoption Stories” and kicks off with “Wo Ai NI (I Love You) Mommy” on Aug. 31st, followed by “Off and Running”” on Sept. 7th, and concludes with “In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee” on Sept. 14th.
“Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy” is the story of eight year old Fang Sui Yong, an orphan in the Chinese province of Guangzhou, who will follow the path of some 70,000 other Chinese orphans as they are adopted by American families. The adopting mother, Donna Sadowsky, makes the 20+ hour journey to adopt the young Sui Yong. Though it is not her first child she has adopted from China, it is a much different experience than her first, who was an infant and knows nothing other than her American parents and lifestyle.
The initial meeting between Donna and Fang is a silent affair, where a girl who is old enough to understand something will change (but not old enough to understand how) remains distant from her new mother and equally apprehensive about the situation. As the young girl (now named Faith Sui Yong Sadowsky) begins to come to terms with her new life, she creates a sisterly relationship (the good and the bad that comes with having a sibling) with the other adopted Sadowsky and has an inseparable bond with her new father. However, her persistent understanding that she is different has her still being stubborn and at times of great emotional angst declaring to Donna in Chinese, “I want to go back to China,” what Donna does not speak. This short scene typifies the gap in connection between the two and the incredible situation of self identity that Faith must come to grips with.
Filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal’s “Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy” is an example of true cinema vérité as she not only shares a common understanding with the subject, but also becomes heavily involved in the documentary itself. The first generation Chinese-American is an integral part of her documentary as she becomes the primary interpreter for Fang in her first few months in the US. With this in mind, it is interesting to see how what she tells the parents Fang is saying is often different from what the subtitles say. It begs the question whether she is manipulating the translation to serve the interests of her story or to lessen the sharp tongue of Fang for the sake of the parents. Beyond the translation, there is also the matter of the camera itself. From the beginning, Fang is a very vibrant and expressive girl by nature and the camera only seems to evoke more out of her. Is would be interesting to see if this story is as much the truth as it is a product of people changing when in front of a lens, but it is alas the question of all documentaries.
Though the beginning of the documentary is slow moving and often appears to be a parent struggling to do what every parent struggles with (i.e. getting an eight year old to study, listen, behave, etc.), the story takes a twist. As the orphan girl from China becomes a typical Long Island princess, she suddenly realizes her transformation and has anxiety about the question of who she is.
In a rare instance, Wang-Breal removes herself as a translator and asks a friend to come and translate a conversation not between Donna and Fang, but Faith and her ex- foster parents via webcam. When Faith asks to talk to her former best friend/foster sister the two, who were once inseparable no longer speak the same language as Faith has forgotten most of her native tongue. Wang-Breal beautifully captures a young girl as her understanding of herself changes before our eyes by simply being a fly on the wall, in stark contrast to the rest of the production. The energy of Faith seems to be leaving her as she struggles with her identity, but just as abruptly as a scene can cut we are again presented with the captivating smile of an eight year old girl, who may realize she is no longer a Chinese orphan and not quite an American princess, but none the less understands the only thing any eight year old can understand: happiness.