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Documentary filmmaker Julia Ivanova sheds light on drama of international adoption

Source: Vancouver Sun
By Erika Thorkelson, Special to The Sun

High Five: An Adoption Saga
Oct. 6, 9:15 p.m. | Empire Granville 4
Oct. 8 4 p.m. | Pacific Cinematheque
Oct. 12 3:45 p.m. | Pacific Cinematheque

All families are psychotic—the sweeping admonition that Douglas Coupland used as the title of his 2001 novel barely scratches the surface of most families’ relationships among themselves and with the greater world. But B.C. filmmaker Julia Ivanova knows that some families are more complicated than others.

Many of Ivanova’s documentaries tackle the ways in which unusual families are constructed through adoption, the extraordinary lengths some couples go to bring children home and the complications that arise when racism, homophobia, international politics and even personal trauma get in the way.

Fatherhood Dreams, the story of four gay men in Canada who always wanted to be fathers, took this on. So did Portrait of a Family in Black and White, a woman in Ukraine named Olga Nenya who was raising 17 foster children, most of whom were biracial. The latter film won best Canadian film at Hot Docs in 2011 and played at the prestigious Sundance Festival.

Her latest film, High Five: an Adoption Saga, follows Surrey couple Cathy and Martin Ward in their quest to adopt all five biological siblings of one family from an orphanage in the village of Gorodnya in rural Ukraine. It will be premiering at the as part of the Canadian Images series at the Vancouver Film Festival on October 6.

Speaking over the phone from Fort McMurray, where she is currently doing background work for her next film, Ivanova explains that she became interested in adoption stories because she worked as an adoption coordinator for eight years after immigrating to Canada from Russia in 1995.

“I helped many B.C. families to adopt internationally,” she recalls. “That’s why I’m not only a huge advocate of adoption but I understand the area deeply and I understand its complexity.”

Ivanova has seen the particular difficulties families have with international adoption, where countries might use the process as a tool to punish foreign governments. “Adoption is always very political,” she says. “Adoptive parents from Canada and the U.S., they are always like hostages during the adoptive process. They are hostages of the possible decisions of authorities in the countries where they go. The rules change without warning and the countries close without warning.”

This is just what happened to the Ward family. “They adopted two children and then the country closed its doors,” recounts Ivanova. “It’s a very nerve-racking process because the rules change without warning.”

First introduced to Ivanova by Nunavut’s Piksuk Media, the Wards’ story is remarkable not only because of the number of children involved but also because of their age. Two of the five children were in their late teens when the story began, adding an extra level of difficulty to the already emotional process of adopting from a faraway country.

“The older the adoptee, the more complex the relationship and adjustment will be,” she says. “So I knew it would provide a lot of deep emotional interaction and feelings.”

The adjustment was particularly difficult for the eldest girl Yulia, who had trouble relinquishing the mothering role she stepped into during the children’s time in the orphanage.

“She took on an adult role and now it is of no need, not only to the adopted parents, which is understandable, but the children don’t need her either,” says Ivanova. “This is the tragic element of the film. She is grieving. She needs to be needed. She needs to have this role and she’s really emotional.”

The greatest difficulty for Ivanova was not becoming a part of the drama herself, especially considering the amount of time she spent with her subjects. “To maintain the balance between letting people live their lives and still be present during important moments is the main challenge of the filmmaker if you are following a family for many years,” says Ivanova. “I think that this time we managed to maintain this balance. People need to live their lives but you need to be aware of when they would like you not to be there.”

Nevertheless Ivanova, whose 19-year-old daughter left home last year, admits that her place in life was a factor in shaping the film. “Every filmmaker brings their own perspective into any story,” she says. “I have no doubt that the same material could have been edited into a completely different story but that’s how I see life and I see the world.”


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