One of my former students had a lengthy review of the movie Lion in her Twitter feed, and I was really taken with her analysis of the movie. I thought I’d open up a discussion on the film here. Did you see it? Will you see it? What did you think of it?
Thanks for the invitation to discuss, Daniel! I belong to a TRA group online, which continues to provide me a safer space to pose questions, share thoughts, and vent. I love the group dearly for those reasons and more. My intention is not to disclose information of what happened in that space. It is noteworthy that the film, Lion, came up in this particular context because it led to a personal and intersectional experience that I want to continue exploring. My experience, at that moment, was one of personal recognition: Yes, I am a TRA and I am also a transnational product of Western imperialist intervention and war. Watching the film was triggering for a myriad of reasons – not simply because of what the film portrayed but also *how* the film portrayed certain themes and which topics/issues the film choose to exclude almost entirely. The deeply problematic institutional and structural violence of intercountry adoption was only implied and worse, suggested to be an issue of ‘untrustworthy, malicious brown people’, a caricature that insidiously shifts blame and/or responsibility away from the exploitative Western workings of intercountry adoption industries.
When I saw the Facebook post about Lion, I felt a familiar sense of alienation creeping over me, and sadness that I was experiencing this in a space that I consider a sanctuary. I would like to offer a solid critique of the film, but I also feel a little strapped of emotional energy at the moment. So I’d like to just share my vent that I posted to the group to break the ice. Since this posting, I’ve purchased Adoptionland: From Orphans to Activists to gain more information and connect more dots.
“As a transracial, international adoptee and a product of western imperialism and war, I believe the film, Lion, did little to seriously critique a highly exploitative international adoption industry.
Before I elaborate let me add, I wanted to champion this film. I had a semblance of hope and some expectations that I would walk away feeling pretty triggered but also hopefully a little more seen and heard by a larger public. I want to be clear that my disappointment is not with Saroo – I have a great deal of love for him and feel for the events and experiences he has gone through, many of which I can strongly relate to. My disappointment actually resides with the framing of his story – which seems to me is heavily influenced by a capitalist Western savior complex.
In the media and responses to this film, there seems to be great deal of catharsis surrounding witnessing this story. But what are we watching? The film portrays a child who is lost and accidentally falls into a dark world of implied trafficking, an orphanage that hosts sexual abuse, and malicious untrustworthy brown people to be moved through the system, ‘rescued’ from such bleak setting and raised in Australia as a ‘well-adjusted’ (in relation to his adopted brother), if also disconnected young man, who serves as a perpetual emotional caretaker to his guilt-ridden Caucasian mother (who never once asks how he is doing, if he is ok) and then he ultimately reunites with this first family. Yay, Google Earth and queue the final moments of the film where a statement pops up on the screen with a statistic of how many homeless children there are in India and to visit the film’s website to go adopt more children that need saving. The End…… I sat in the theater feeling isolated from the energy of the people surrounding me. I was there with a friend (who is also an adoptee) shaking my head. No. Just no. My blood was boiling. My heart broke that this complicated story was entangled in this problematic structure and framing. When will we interrogate how the international adoption industry depends on the exploitation of poor women, especially in countries that were colonized or places seriously affected by Western imperialism? When will we examine the connections between international adoption services that profit from the impact of globalization on underserved communities in ‘developing’ countries? I can’t pretend I know everything about how those systems work – but there is enough evidence to warrant a deep and honest interrogation of how and why and for whom this international adoption industry exists. Furthermore, why are we not addressing the systemic issues that make it seem like we may need such a fraught and exploitative adoption industry?
While there were moments where I could see the film exploring Saroo’s personal trauma, imperfections and deeply complicated aspects of being a transracial, international adoptee, the film ultimately fell short for me. I am not and will never negate Saroo’s experience. I am saying that his trauma is connected to a deeper network of experiences of adoptees and their families shaped by histories and present moments of disenfranchisement, exploitation, oppression. This film does not do that story justice. With a whole lot of cathartic rhetoric, this film masks a greater threat profiting from the lives of disenfranchised and under-served communities.”
What was your experience of the film, Daniel? Are you able to share or direct us to the twitter feed with the review? I’d love to read more reviews and written content from TRA’s in general. Thanks again for opening the discussion! Looking forward to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for the in-depth overview and analysis, in all honesty I refuse to see it, and what you are saying here just confirms my suspicions and my student’s warning! I want to think that the movie might have opened up a valid discussion of the topic, but I’m more inclined to see this as a kind of cooptation of resistance to adoption…. We really need to define the parameters of discussion and get unheard voices out there ourselves, instead of waiting on Hollywood to “come through”. There’s something very disturbing about the quite American notion that representation in the media is somehow validating or empowering, when it is quite the opposite.
Hah, I support your refusal to see the film. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Yes, “cooptation of resistance to adoption” resonates. The film seemed to boast a progressive liberal ‘woke’ politic, without much actionable substance represented in the film. (ex. Saroo’s girlfriend demonstrating her awareness of community-based consultative work in ‘hotel management’ when she states something around the lines of “we need to *give* the community a voice,” a phrase that I’ve heard used a number of times in the non profit industrial complex and is also a phrase that rhetorically erases the voices people and communities that obviously already have voices, which are structurally silenced by oppressive forces. Queue in the film: the girlfriend abandons Saroo and instead consults the white adoptive mother about Saroo’s behavior. Comical.)
The “cooptation of resistance,” especially for capitalistic gains, seems to be an American cultural tradition. I don’t think there needs to be an ‘either/or choice’ concerning defining the perimeters of the discussion/centering unheard voices OR waiting for Hollywood to ‘come through.’ The either/or condition is probably not what you meant, but I’d like to emphasize why there maybe a need to hold space for both actions. I hear your call to action to not rely solely on mainstream media for visibility, empowerment, and representation. It’s funny that my experience has not been one of finding much affirmation or empowerment in Hollywood – but my desire to feel seen and understood is valid. I empathize with that feeling, that desire to draw empowerment from the world around me. That empathy signals to me I must be cautious not invalidate the experiences of those who do find their search for empowerment in media successful. I think an ongoing critique from TRAs of the hollywood media’s representation of adoptees, which will emerge whether we like it or not, in addition to the production of ‘our own media’ are both useful practices. Lion may have been a shit film, but it certainly opened the door to first-time fulfilling conversations with my own TRA community. I even shared this post with my family so that they can get insight, if they choose, into my emotional processing and intellectual journey concerning my transracial intercountry adoption. The need to spark dialogue seems necessary to grow.
I’m also coming to understand that ‘our’ is a term that TRAs cannot take for granted, since our experiences, while at times profoundly shared, can be as different as the intersectional scope of our identities (not to mention our relative desires to probe and critique the circumstances of our adoption). A TRA can be a minority of a minority of a minority, etc. As adoptees set up the perimeters of our own content, I think we can use a lot of existing tools and strategies of other resistance movements to foster a space of sharing, learning, educating, so on.
On that note, are you able to share any adoptee-produced media that you would recommend tuning into and supporting? Films, webseries, podcasts? I’m aware of “The Adopted Life” webseries by Angela Tucker and an assortment of anthologies that center adult adoptee voices. There’s also an interesting podcast called Podsocs, “for social workers on the run” that hosts some episodes that center adult adoptee scholars and researchers. I’m in the early conceptual stages of creating a podcast focusing on issues related to adoption and would love to learn more about what’s already out there in terms of audio/visual media.
I saw Lion last year and wrote about it on my blog. While it was a Hollywood movie with a Hollywood ending, I thought the film did a good job of portraying the complexity of emotions and relationships for adoptees.
Snipped from my blog: https://redthreadbroken.wordpress.com/2017/03/09/lion-review/
“Lion also effectively dispels the common notions that “love can conquer all” or that “love alone makes a family.” Saroo’s parents adopt another boy from India named Mantosh, who from a young age learned to deal with traumas by hitting himself. Despite the unconditional love and opportunities provided to Mantosh through adoption, viewers see that he still uses those same coping methods in adulthood. Tensions between Saroo and his brother are easily visible, as Saroo performs what could be described as the “well-adjusted” adoptee whereas Mantosh more clearly displays acting-out behaviors. In one tense conversation, Saroo tells Mantosh that he is not his brother and that his real brother is in India still. While, of course, these words were spoken in anger and not truly meant, the movie highlights that brotherly sentiment does not necessarily naturally occur simply through adoption.
Saroo is lucky to have a caring and supportive girlfriend during much of his identity search. The intensity of Saroo’s search, however, does strain their relationship to the point of a temporary separation. Lion shows how difficult it is at times to be in partnership with someone whose identity is so in flux, again reiterating the realistic point that love, in this case romantic, can’t fix all pain.
While Lion beautifully highlights the complexities of some adoptee relationships, the ending of the film is wrapped up very cleanly in a classic Hollywood style. Saroo reunites with his biological mother in India, reconnects with his adoptive parents, and resumes his relationship with his girlfriend. The end of the movie does not show how Saroo will move forward in combining his Indian and Australian identities, how he will manage relationships with his biological family without a common language, or how he will deal with the feelings of grief and loss over his biological brother after twenty-five years of fantasizing about that reunion. Despite these gaps and unanswered questions at the end, Lion portrays a nuanced look at adoption in a way that doesn’t vilify biological or adoptive parents and pays particular attention to the spectrum of emotions for adoptees.”