I am hard pressed to think of a scene from a recent documentary as depressing as that which culminates Mike Dudko’s and Olga Rudnieva’s Kids’ Rights: The Business of Adoption. Whether it is deliberately or unintentionally so is not clear, and that uncertainty highlights the film’s problems with structure and focus.
The film begins with a young couple considering adoption and confronted by what seems like endless bureaucratic nightmares. It ends with an array of children announcing their dreams to the camera. The narrator solemnly reflects that, of course, these dreams will never be realized. The preceding chapters appear to validate such pessimism. Kids’ Rights claims that internationally some 132,000,000 children are in need of adoption. It goes on to claim that approximately 250,000 of them are adopted annually. The cold, cruel math: less than one in five hundred of the children will be taken into a new home.
What is puzzling about this ending is that the film appeals to viewers to participate in a broken system rather than to reform it. “Please consider adoption” would be a perfectly logical culminating message if the documentary had not spent its first ninety-three minutes chronicling in painful detail just how expensive and difficult is the adoption process.
The documentary begins, promisingly enough, with a case study. The couple wishing to adopt have witnessed Sir Elton John and his partner get denied permission to adopt a child. If an international celebrity with vast riches fails to meet the criteria for suitable parenting, how likely will it be that ordinary couples will be able to do so? The case study benefits from getting the musician to appear for an interview. He makes it sound as though the obstacles standing in the way of the adoption solely revolve around his sexual orientation. An additional interview with a government spokesperson suggests the issues are a little more complex. (For example, he mentions that age difference between child and parent is also a factor: Elton John is 67.)
Elton John’s story is a decent hook into the story, but the film feels a bit unfocused after the introduction. We get interviews from kids who grew up in state care, visits to Nepal, Ukraine the United States, the UK, and China. There is a chapter on the issue of single moms.
It is not merely the scope of the investigation that threatens the film’s cohesion. The title suggests that the documentary wants to be–and should be–a policy investigation. It does an above average job at painting a dire picture, but it never examines how things could (or might) be different. Instead, it just keeps lamenting the way things are. There is plenty to lament, and I am firm in my conviction that filmmakers should not be held responsible for solving every problem they document. But here, as with the end of An Inconvenient Truth, if a film is going to suggest that a policy position rises to the level of a moral imperative, its calls to action need to be a little more specific.
Should restrictions on adoption be this rigorous? If not, how rigorous should they be? These are the questions the last act should be asking. Surely various nation/states have a responsibility to vet those who wish to take possession of some of their most vulnerable citizens. Cynics may imply that the invocation of that responsibility is a smokescreen designed to justify extorting those who are willing to care for the children, making orphans into commodities used to subsidize other items in a government budget. It’s not hard to believe that this is case. I just kept wondering, though, what would happen if there were a high profile case of someone who adopted a child and then exploited him or her. Wouldn’t we similarly cry foul if governments were simply handing children over to anyone who asked and then hoping for the best?
At the core of the film is an unarticulated policy question: how hard should it be to adopt a child? Unless or until that question becomes the frame of the debate, complaints about the current system exist in a vacuum and are unlikely to be effective.