Ukrainian orphans featured again this year at Hot Docs–Review of ‘High Five: A Suburban Adoption Saga’

The former orphanage worker-turned documentary filmmaker debuted her second film about Ukrainian orphans last night at Hot Docs in Toronto, ‘High Five: A Suburban Adoption Saga”:

Julia Ivanova premiered her first film ‘Family Portrait in Black & White’ 2 years ago at HotDocs which featured a Ukrainian women who adopts almost 30 children, which more than half are black who grow up in Ukraine.

This year’s film showcases the trials and tribulations of a B.C. childless couple who try and adopt two Ukrainian sisters from a orphanage in Horodnia (northern Ukraine), 7-year old Alyona and 8-year old Snezhana. The couple later learns the sisters have three siblings and try and adopt them all – 15-year-old Sergei, 16-year-old Yuliya, and six-year-old Sasha.

The film shows the challenges with adopting children across the age spectrum, with the eldest having the most trouble fitting in. Yuliya used to be the children’s protector, but finds that’s no longer her role, and struggles for independence from her new parents as she reaches adulthood. There is a language barrier at the beginning of the family’s relationship, but the parents did not show any signs of learning any of the children’s language in the movie. The parents face their own struggles connecting with the children at times, and the financial difficulties with adopting all of them (the movie claims around $200,000) and how it has drained their savings. The father is a nurse who eventually works up in the arctic a month at a time for additional income, and the mother is on disability from a car accident (which is the reason they did not try to have their own children).

The children also have to deal with the physical and emotional battle scars of their past – we are told some have learning disabilities (which are not thoroughly addressed in the film), Sergei suffers from lack of a growth hormone that leaves him only 4’6” tall entering adulthood, and at least one girl appears to have some form of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The younger children appear to adapt better than their own older siblings, who want to return to Ukraine to visit their old friends.

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The movie itself provides a good glimpse into the life of an adopted family and the struggles of immigrating, fitting and growing up. The movie is solely focused on the family and offers little into any politics (there was a state-wide adoption ban from the government) and life outside the family (there is little footage of the children’s past lives in the orphanage). Julia even interjects herself into the documentary, especially during conflicts, when the children shut themselves off from communication. She is able to interview them in their native Russian to hear their true feelings no whatever matter is pressing them. Filming the family in their home most of the time can certainly be challenging, as the camera cannot be candid in their small house – sometimes the conversations that the family have feel a little forced, most likely to save face in front of the camera. Nonetheless the true feelings do come out and are captured in the film, making it worthwhile to see.

High Five: A Suburban Adoption Saga airs again as part of Hot Docs:

Today, May 1st at 4:00 PM at the Isabel Bader Theatre (at the University of Toronto campus near the ROM)

Saturday, May 4th at  4:00 PM at The Regent

The CBC has also written up an additional preview on the movie

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