The Berkeley filmmaker’s documentary career covered the Korean adoptees saga

St. Paul’s Orphanage in Seoul circa 1957. Courtesy Deann Borshay Liem

In his 2000 detective documentary first person pluralDeann Borshay Liem uncovered the tangled mystery of her identity, which was tossed and remade when a Fremont family adopted her from South Korea in the mid-1960s.

A decade later, the Berkeley filmmaker followed up with In the Cha Jung Hee casean essayistic documentary detailing her efforts to find the girl she swapped with at the orphanage, while exploring the far-reaching implications of international transracial adoption.

On May 19, Liem’s ​​final chapter in his award-winning triptych will air on public broadcaster WORLD as part of the America Reframed series. Rather than delving into her own experiences, she takes a broad look at the rise of South Korea’s global adoption program with Geographies of kinship. Following five adult adoptees as they return to their homeland, the film joins them in a dizzying process attempting to reconnect history and bonds severed decades ago.

“I made two very personal films about my own experience and ended up meeting Korean adoptees all over the world,” Liem said. “I came to wonder how we got to where we all got. At some point we can define our personal feelings, but we really have to situate the personal stories within this larger historical phenomenon.

Dean Borshay Liem. Courtesy of Liem

With regard to Korea, the broader historical context ranges from the colonial annexation of the kingdom by Japan in 1910 and the brutal occupation to the division of the peninsula at the end of World War II and the Civil War. devastating conflict between the Communist North and the US-backed South. In the decades following the 1953 armistice, the American military presence in South Korea played an important role in fueling a well-oiled pipeline that sent more than 200,000 Korean children to other countries, for in many cases the children were fathered by American servicemen.

It’s a saga that South Korea is still coming to terms with, and a thread of Geographies of kinship follows adoptees supporting policy reforms to ease the pressure on single mothers that has long kept children out of the country. “Policies were often dominated by agencies or adoptive parents,” Liem said. “When I was looking at the story, I came across individuals who had points of intersection with this story, who engaged with these structures. Over time, adoptees begin to have a say in these policies .

Other tectonic developments are driven more by technology than politics. Liem follows Estelle Cooke, who was among the first group of mixed-race adoptees to return to Korea in search of their biological families in 2017. As in so many other situations, the advent of DNA testing has upended assumptions about the anonymity and open the doors to secrets. locked up for a long time.

“DNA testing has had a huge impact on adoptees,” Liem said. “When Estelle did her DNA test, it was still in the early years of the test and at the time it was expensive and not widely used. Now people give them as a birthday present. This opens up incredible opportunities to search and locate family members. This continues after Estelle’s journey in 2017. The majority of these women found their biological father’s side of the family as well as many family members on the Korean side.

Watch a trailer for First Person Pluriel

Liem continues to research and cover the Korean adoptee saga, but she also explores other aspects of the peninsula’s history. His latest film, Crossings, remains centered on the unresolved Korean War. The documentary follows a group of 30 activists who cross the DMZ from North Korea to South Korea to bring attention to the unresolved conflict. And while her new film is making its way through the film festival circuit, her breakthrough project, First Person Plural, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Bay Area Documentary from the San Francisco International Film Festival, is now available to stream on Criterion Channel as part of the Asian American Cinema 2000-2009 collection.

Liem credits her move to Berkeley in 1977 to study at Cal for setting her on this path. Adopted by a loving white family in Fremont, she grew up unconnected to Korean culture or even to other Asian Americans. “I thought I was white growing up, like a lot of early-year Korean adoptees,” she said. “Coming to Berkeley in the mid-1970s, meeting all these Asians and other Korean students, I went through a major identity crisis. I wasn’t white. I was Asian and I didn’t know what that meant.

The evolution of her self-definition was deeply influenced by the films she watched at the Pacific Film Archive, which played “a major role in how I visualized the Asian body and face,” said she declared. “At that time, in the 80s, in terms of Asian American art and culture, it was mostly Japanese and Chinese American. I remember reading Janice Mirikitani and learning about internment camps. Having this community to “grow up” in was so important. Thank goodness I made it to Berkeley.

A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture journalist who has been contributing to Berkeleyside since 2011.


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