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Casa de los Babys

Adoptive Families’ editor Beth Kracklauer sat down with director John Sayles to talk about his new movie, Casa de los Babys, a thought-provoking look at international adoption.



Casa de los Babys, the latest feature from veteran director John Sayles, has sparked a lot of discussion in the adoption community. The story unfolds in an unspecified Latin American country, where a group of women from the U.S. waits to adopt. Economics, cultural contrasts, fate, and longing coalesce in a thought-provoking portrait of childless parents, parentless children, and the forces that bring them together. We spoke to John Sayles recently about how he came to make this movie, and what he learned along the way.

Adoptive Families: Why did you choose not to identify the country in which the movie is set?

John Sayles: I wrote to every Latin American country and got their adoption laws, and one of the reasons I set it in a non-specific country is that those laws change so often. Right now, Chile probably has the longest residency requirement—as long as two months, sometimes three. It's a hardship for people who don't have much money, but the requirement's not there just to soak more money out of [Americans who travel to adopt]. It's really about making sure these [potential parents] are stable people.

AF: And why did you choose Latin America?

JS: It's part of our country, part of our history. About a third of our country once was Mexico. And Latinos have recently exceeded African Americans as our country's biggest minority. If you hear a second language being spoken, in most places it's Spanish. Once I taught myself the language, it was a window.

I hope that in Latin America, people will recognize [the Latin American] characters and say, "This is a movie about people who are visited by a bunch of gringas who want to adopt their children, and how they [deal with] them." Perhaps Americans will go to the movie because they think it's about a bunch of Americans, and then they'll realize, "Oh, there's a whole other half to this story, other people I'm going to meet, and they're three-dimensional, too."

AF: What sort of future do you imagine for the children the North American characters in the movie are waiting to adopt?

JS: Prejudice has changed in this country. If you look at our armed forces, it looks like a Benetton ad. And you see many more mixed adoptive families than you did in the 50s, 60s, or 70s. There's this paradox: In certain cases, the kids are available for adoption [in Latin American countries] because the wealthier classes in those countries look down on the groups of people who tend to have kids who need adopting. You know, "I'm not having an Indian in my family." So the kid goes unadopted, and then an American comes along and says, "I want to adopt a kid who needs adopting."

AF: About halfway through the movie, there's a highly charged scene in which Marcia Gay Harden's character suggests to her adoption attorney that there will be "more money in it" for him if he expedites her paperwork. Why did you choose to include that scene?

JS: In the movie, we have a lawyer who's actually doing a pretty good job, but he's not immune to pressure. He's got government on his back; he's got clients on his back; he's trying to make a living; he doesn't have a beautiful office. I've been to those offices; these guys are not making a fortune. And they're dealing with the fact that there are illegal things that go on that mess up the whole adoption system for people who are doing it legitimately. People sometimes assume, "Well, we bribed the cops down there. Shouldn't we bribe the adoption guy, too?"

Ultimately, there is this uncomfortable realization that no matter how well the agencies are run—and some of them are run very, very well—you're able to adopt because you have the money to do it. And, very often, the person who placed that child for adoption did it because of economic reasons, because they didn't feel that they could raise that kid with the amount of money they had.

AF: Do you see corruption as part of the international adoption process?

JS: I'll put it this way: If you look at your tax form, one of the things that it says in the small print is that bribes paid to do business in foreign countries cannot be taken off your taxes. There's an assumption by the IRS that this is part of doing business in foreign countries! It's part of doing business in this country. Actually, people I know who've done business in various parts of the world say that adoption is one of the least corrupt and most scrutinized, compared with the way other businesses are run.

AF: Casa de los Babys interweaves the personal and the political, as many of your movies do.

JS: For me it's kind of unavoidable. We shot Casa de los Babys in Acapulco, and we said to our advance crew, "Why don't you go out in the community and talk to people about what they think of foreign adoptions?" And then we asked our North American actors what they thought. The North Americans saw it as a very simple thing: There are these kids, they need families, they need adopting, somebody's got to do it, this is a great thing—which I agree with! And then some Mexican people said, "Well, these kids might never know their culture." Often, it was about religion. One guy simply said, "Look, if you have money, you can buy anything." He was cynical. And then there were people who were more thoughtful, who said, "We don't have [intercountry adoption] much in Mexico, but the places where they have it a lot, it's too bad for them. Isn't it a shame that they can't take care of their own kids, or aren't taking care of their own kids?" I agree with both sides. It's a very complex situation.

Korean people don't come to the United States and adopt our children. People always smile when I say that: "What a funny idea." It's not any funnier than Americans going to Korea and adopting their children. There's this assumption Americans have: "It's a good deal to become an American; we're doing them a favor." It is a good deal to get adopted if you'd otherwise be on the street, even if you end up with wacky parents—and you don't have to be adopted to end up with wacky parents!

Media Focus is a regular column in AF. Add your own review here.

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