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Telling the Cambodian Story

Four years after the halt to U.S. adoptions from Cambodia, the story behind the scandal finds its way onto the screen.by Susan Avery



In 2001, the American government announced a stop to all U.S. adoptions from Cambodia, making headlines around the world. A country long known for deep poverty and political wrangling, Cambodia was under investigation for its unregulated adoption process. Two new films, one independent fiction and one short documentary, were inspired by the events leading up to the moratorium. Both are emotionally wrenching. More importantly, both are superb.

Holy Lola
French director Bertrand Tavernier set out to tell a fish-out-of-water story, and he expertly depicts the unpredictable journey from couple at home to family overseas. Pierre and Geraldine are played exquisitely by Jacques Gamblin and Isabelle Carré, who assume the roles of hopeful parents so naturally it’s hard to remember that this is a work of fiction. We share in their joyous anticipation and anxious moments before the authorities. We hear them tape-recording messages to their not-yet-found baby—sometimes sorrowful, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes as real as it gets. In an agonizing moment, Geraldine has genuine pains in her belly for the baby that is not there.

From the moment the couple lands at the airport in Cambodia, the unfamiliar culture and the monsoon season rain down on their plans to bring home a baby. After Pierre and Geraldine meet with local adoption authorities, for approval of the dossier they compiled in France, they learn that it’s up to them to do the legwork—traveling from orphanage to orphanage to find an adoptable baby and initiate the process in person.

For weeks they traipse around the country, only to find that no babies are available. Along the way, they refuse help from middlemen and others with suspect motives. When offered a child outside of an orphanage setting, Geraldine pleads with her husband that they have the chance to save the girl from a life of prostitution, but Pierre refuses to be part of a possibly criminal situation. In another scene, the couple witnesses a Cambodian doctor attempting to convince an impoverished mother to give up her baby—she can always have another, he says.

When they’ve almost given up hope, a legitimately abandoned baby is finally identified: Holy Lola, so named in the Cambodian paperwork on account of her orphanage, Holy Baby. But Pierre and Geraldine have already booked their plane tickets home, so it becomes a race against time to secure birth certificates, visas, medical testing, and all the necessary paperwork.

Director Tavernier is masterful at aligning terrifying plight and serendipitous quirks. In one particularly tense moment near the end, Pierre pleads with a malfunctioning fax machine, and it suddenly starts working again. But in the race to complete the documentation, nothing is certain until the plane takes off with the new family of three. Tavernier has yet to sell the film to an American distribution company, but Holy Lola continues to screen at film festivals around the country to universal critical acclaim.

Log on to www.unifrance.org for information on film festivals that will show this fine piece of work.

Compassion and Controversy
In December of 2001, two Cambodian mothers went to the American embassy and accused two United States adoption agencies of stealing their children. The hailstorm of controversy that followed their accusations led the United States Department of Justice to put an immediate moratorium on all Cambodian adoptions, leaving some 250 families caught in the middle of the process. Compassion and Controversy, a 30-minute documentary by Tiara Delgado, seeks to make sense of what happened and to generate action to reestablish the adoption process in a country with thousands of orphaned children.

Since the film was completed, the U.S. Agency for International Development has given a grant to Holt International Children’s Services to conduct a census of orphaned and institutionalized children in Cambodia. The film, which has been shown to interested members of congress, is available for community screenings. For more information, log on to www.globalvisionvideo.com.

Susan Avery, an adoptive mother, is the kids editor at New York Magazine.

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