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The Making of Unlocking the Heart of Adoption
by Sheila Ganz

(Updated from the published version in adoption newsletters Chain Of Life published by Janine Baer, author of Growing in the Dark, and The Communicator of Concerned United Birthparents, 1997.)

When I drove across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Berkeley in May 1988, I knew I was embarking on a great adventure.  I was off to record the life stories of adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents in closed, open and transracial adoptions.  I wanted to show the depth of the impact relinquishment and adoption has on people in the adoption triad that I’d heard described in many adoption support groups.  I am a birthmother.  In 1969, the stigma of being an unwed mother prevented my parents and the social worker from helping me keep my daughter.  Losing my baby to adoption felt like an amputation.

My desire to make the film was fueled by a need to portray the truth of adoption triad members' experiences to the world.  I want people to know that adoption isn't a 'simple solution' to unplanned pregnancy and infertility.  I wanted to show the impact of  closed adoption record laws, the dilemma of adoptees, they two families – one by birth and one by adoption, the prejudice against unwed mothers and the fact that they never forget their relinquished child, and the issues involved in raising an adopted child.  I want Unlocking the Heart of Adoption to liberate us from the shackles of silence and shame - to come into the light of openness and honesty in adoption.

Two months after I began work on the film, my fondest dream came true.  I found my daughter.  She was 19.  We met once and then some months later she broke off contact.  I always held out hope for the future.   After the film was completed, I called her to tell her and she was open to talking to me.  She was happy to hear things were going well and congratulated me on finishing the film, and she told me she was married and has three beautiful children.   I told her I am happy for her that she has a good life.  We are now building a relationship.

In 1989, I received fiscal sponsorship for the project from Film Arts Foundation, the largest regional organization for independent film and video-makers in the country.  FAF became my film school.  I’ve taken just about all of their documentary workshops and seminars.

Since I couldn’t to pay someone to shoot and edit my film, I learned to do it myself.  As an alumni at San Francisco State, I had access to the video editing equipment in the library and taught myself to edit. 

The artistic challenge to make this film has been enormous.   I set my task to tell the adoption story from all three points-of-view of the adoption triad – adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents in both same race and transracial adoptions.  And since nothing happens in a vacuum, I felt it important to include a brief history of adoption in this country, from the Orphan Trains to the current grassroots struggle for the civil rights of adult adoptees. 

I interviewed a couple dozen people in the adoption triad and a few adoption professionals.  Eventually, I decided that we are the experts of our own experience and didn't need anyone to speak for us.

Most one hour documentaries feature about five people.  Adoption is a very complex topic and I did not want to simplify it.  So, while the stories are told in the traditional talking-head format, Unlocking the Heart of Adoption breaks with tradition and includes seventeen people plus the history, which I consider another character. 

I found the people in the film many different ways, through word-of-mouth in adoption support groups and by seeking out people with specific stories such as Debbie, a Japanese American adoptee and Martin, an African American adoptee and his Caucasian adoptive father, Hal.  I operated the camera and interviewed the people.  I assumed these would be the "preliminary" interviews and planned to go back with a full crew and shoot in 16mm.  But I never got the budget to do this.  After several years, I began to edit the film with these original interviews.  The film was completed on digital betacam, with source footage on VHS,Hi8, BetaSP, a little bit of 16mm, DV and DVcam.

Through the process of talking with numerous adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents besides the people in the film, I discovered that we have many things in common, and that whether or not there is communication between the birth and adoptive family, we are a family.  Connected.  Forever.  We need to know each other, so we can be ourselves.

Unlocking the Heart of Adoption has undergone many changes in title, structure and participants.  Editing the film has been a trial and error kind of thing.  I conducted work-in-progress screenings to test out each new version for people in the adoption triad, adoption professionals, filmmakers and the general public.  This was excruciating at times.  Yet, it pushed me to make the film clearer, stronger and better. 

I learned a lot about documentary filmmaking, especially from my consulting editor, Vivien Hillgrove.  Vivien’s credits include sound editing on many feature films such as Amadeus and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.   And she has edited many documentaries including First Person Plural.   Viv is a birthmother and has reunited with her daughter.  Because this topic is close to her heart, she donated her time to review different versions of the film with me.  In the process, she became my mentor.  The film simply would not be what it is today, if it hadn’t been for Viv.  I will be forever grateful for her advice and wonderful encouragement.

In 1989, I formed an Advisory Council made up of adoption triad members, authors, lecturers and social workers.  Through Film Arts Foundation, I met filmmakers and Allie Light and Irving Saraf became film advisors until they got busy with their films.  

Many people have helped me along the way by giving me equipment, when I started I didn't have a camcorder or a computer, and making generous donations and writing encouraging notes thanking me for making the film.  Truly a few kind words kept me going for weeks.  My heartfelt thanks goes out to the 600 people who sent donations over the years - from the woman in Maine who sent five one-dollar bills, to the birth grandfather who sent me a check for $10,000, and the adoptee who donated $15,000 through her family foundation The Varian Foundation. 

My goals for the film are many-fold.  I want Unlocking the Heart of Adoption to challenge audiences to look beyond the stereotypes and understand the emotional and familial complexities of adoption as a lifelong process.   And for the film/video to be used as an educational tool in adoption agencies, adoption support groups, infertility clinics, planned parenthood, high schools, college and university courses in social work, psychiatry, sociology, ethnic studies, women’s studies and family law.  I am also plan to have the film broadcast on public television.

It is my hope that by telling our stories with depth and honesty, people in the adoption triad will gain a greater understanding and compassion for each other.

My fondest dream includes a birthmother and her husband watching the film on PBS and when her husband comments about the birthmother’s loss, she has the courage to tell him, "This happened to me, too."

And in another living room where an adoptive family has seen the film, the adoptive parents turn to their now grown adopted son, or daughter and ask if they would like information and help to do a search. 

And in another living room where the adoptee and birthmother have found each other, the adoptive parents welcome the birthmother into their home as part of the family she really is.

And when a state legislator watches the film, he or she says out loud, "I had no idea.  I’m voting YES to give adult adoptees unconditional access to their original birth certificate!"

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