Earlier this summer, when the Silverdocs jury awarded Stephanie Wang-Breal “Wo Ai Ni (I Love You), Mommy,” certainly a dark horse, with the Sterling U.S. Feature Award, even Wang-Breal was surprised: “I saw the other films in competition and was blown away. I was not expecting it at all.” Reading a description of it, the film certainly does not look like the kind of film that wins awards. It’s story is small and accessible; it speaks softly, but it has a lot to say.
In addition to the award at Silverdocs, the film also won the award for best documentary feature at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. In their statement on the film, the Silverdocs jury, noted, “The film dives so deeply into its story that the filmmaker’s hands disappear. She creates a profound connection between her characters and the story she’s telling. Above all, she dares to leave the audience with questions to which there are no easy answers.” What makes this compliment all more powerful is that Wang-Breal does indeed play a huge part in the film.
“Wo Ai Ni Mommy” tells intimately a story that today is commonplace, that of a young Chinese girl being adopted by American families. In this film, Fang Sui Yong is adopted by the Sadowsky, a Jewish couple who live on Long Island and already have children, one of which is also a Chinese adoptee. When she is taken in by the Sadowsky, Fang Sui becomes Faith and, with the help of her mother Donna, shifts from speaking Chinese to speaking English. The camera, deeply ingrained into the Sadowsky familial fabric, shows intimately the effort Donna in particular makes to acculturate Faith into her new American life. Both Donna and Faith are big characters, forthright and bold in every scene, the perfect subjects to highlight the intricacies of interracial international adoption.
Wang-Breal spoke to families at various stages in the adoption process all over the country. She wanted to focus on a relatively older adoptee so that she didn’t feel like she was coloring the child’s impression too much. Ultimately she ended up with the Sandowsky’s, who were in the beginning stages of adopting again. “It took them five months to decide after our first meeting. I visited once a month and gained their trust,” said Wang-Breal. “My main concern was helping Faith communicate. Donna had a strategy, and I just helped out.” Indeed, despite her translations, language and communication remains a hearty theme of the film, worked out in various ways, in scene after scene.
In the film’s conclusion, Faith calls up her Chinese foster family on Skype, something she felt compelled to do throughout the film and was warned against by employees at the foster agency. In what Wang-Breal shooter called “the most poignant scene he had shot in a long time,” Faith, now fully fluent in English and shaky on her Chinese, struggles to communicate with her foster sister. The two stretch for words that they can use to communicate with each other. At one point, Faith asks if Wang-Breal can translate a secret for her to tell to her sister, a plan that is ruined when she realizes that it will no longer be a secret once a translator is involved. The film is full of small scenes loaded with cultural and personal importance for its subjects and for people in similar situations.
“As a Chinese-American filmmaker and a woman, it’s hard to get jobs. I just realized I was a person of color a few years ago. I’ve always felt a little out of place. Even in New York, I feel like an outsider.” She saved up from years working in television to jumpstart “Wo Ai Ni, Mommy” herself. After working for a few years following the family intently, shooting over a few years, Wang-Breal got funding from the Jerome Foundation, which helped her to gain the recognition that led to support from Chicken & Egg Pictures and POV.
As for now, Wang-Breal is busy with a child of her own. To separate work and family, she rented out an office space in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood and has been chipping away on a script about a Chinese family adopting an American child, and is tinkering with a personal doc based on her experiences growing up in Ohio. Compelled by her “documentary aesthetic,” Wang-Breal is diligently interviewing people who grew up in China as a foreigner to gain insights into their experiences. “Wo Ai Ni Mommy” has screenings coming up soon at the New York Asian American International Film Festival and at the Indianapolis International Film Festival. The film will premiere on PBS’ POV series on August 31st.