________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 7 . . . . November 21, 2008

cover A Place Between: The Story of an Adoption.

Curtis Kaltenbaugh (Writer & Director). Joe MacDonald (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2007.
72 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9107 051.

Subject Headings:
International adoption.
Interracial adoption.
Adoption-Psychosocial aspects.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Frank Loreto.

**** /4

When Curtis was seven-years-old and his brother Ashok was four, they were moved from Manitoba and adopted by a family in Pennsylvania. In most ways, this was a positive move. The brothers had been in foster homes for two years. Their mother, Margaret, was an alcoholic; one of her children had already died, and she was unable to care for the boys. They became part of a stable, loving family and were raised by Bob and Tina as their children. Nice ending to a sad story, no?

     Happy endings are the stuff of fairy tales. Real life simply moves from phase to phase and then sets up the next phase. This is not a film about endings. Curtis, who narrates this film, is the writer and director. He admits early in the film that he did grow up in a loving family, but there was a part of his life that was calling to him. An Ojibwe in a white family, he felt that he was made up of two parts. He wants to "bring both sides together" and somehow define himself. Curious about his birth mother, Curtis managed to find where she was. His adoptive parents did not know that he had been searching and were surprised when Margaret made contact with them and wanted to meet with her sons. Bob and Tina were open to the idea but were advised by the social workers that this was a bad plan. Margaret was all set for a reunion, but it was denied at the last minute.

     Now, at 30, Curtis plans to "bring both families together." The film records the preparation, the meeting and the aftermath of this event. For Curtis, the questions started when he turned 14. "Why was he given up?" "Why did his younger brother die?" "Why was his mother an alcoholic?" He thought that his current life was "too good to be true," and he "waited for the rug to be pulled." This meeting of the two families is difficult for everyone.

     In the preparation, Margaret admits that her baby of 18 months died while she had been out drinking. Molested by her uncles and cousins, she was put in a foster home at 11. She drank to ease the pain. When her boys were taken, she had no idea where they were. There was to be no contact until they were 18. When her hopes of seeing them were dashed, Margaret attempted suicide. She felt that she was being denied because she was Native. This was the bottom for her. She went to Alcoholics Anonymous and endured "six months of darkness." She struggled through three years to learn how to live with people again, to learn to accept herself and to be able to live without alcohol.

     While Curtis' life was smooth, his brother Ashok's was not so. Ashok was more concerned with his heritage. He was constantly picked on at school for being Native. He got into trouble-gas sniffing, drugs. Tina acknowledges that Ashok's adolescent years were very difficult. Ashok admits that he "was trying to be provocative." Bob and Tina could not understand the racism that Ashok endured. Bob thought that "he was over-reacting." At 14, Ashok and a friend stole the family car. In an attempt to "teach him a lesson," Bob let him go through the legal system, and Ashok spent five years in juvenile detention. Ashok attempted suicide and spent time in a psychiatric ward. Bob "thought he was showing him the rules." He confesses that he did not understand Ashok's motivation and sees now that what he tried was the wrong approach.

     Before the planned meeting of the families, Bob and Tina had not seen Ashok for eight years. Curtis, before the meeting, had moved back to Winnipeg. He is reconnected with his mother but does not feel one with his Ojibwe heritage. In fact, he states that he "feels like an imposter." When he says that "deer meat is gross," Margaret calls him "a spoiled white boy." He sees Ashok's embracing of Ojibwe culture as a rejection of their adoptive parents. However, Curtis states that he is not connected to either Ojibwe or Lutheran spirituality. Bob is a Lutheran pastor. The meeting is facilitated by an Ojibwe elder. The process is to take a week beginning and ending with a face-to-face meeting. In between, Bob and Tina are to learn about Curtis' background.

     The initial meeting is very moving, especially when Tina sees Ashok. Her love for him is without question, but love was never the issue. Margaret takes everyone to meet her mother and see where it was that she grew up. She admits that, even though the house burned down, good and bad memories remain in the area. Margaret states that her boys were taken from her. She had wanted them to be placed with family but was denied. She says, "We were told of God's love, but where was the love?" Clearly the anger is not far beneath the surface. As far as the boys are concerned, she always believed that "you're my blood, and no one can put a claim on you." She resented Bob and Tina calling her boys their children. She can understand now how things unfolded as they did, but there are many years of bitterness to remedy.

     Ashok and Curtis argue about the root cause of the distance between them. Ashok, visibly angry, does not want to "get into it." He is angry that his giftedness as a child was not seen. This should have been celebrated. He still feels the racism, and his bitterness is obvious. Curtis is very apprehensive of the final meeting. The week concludes with a "sharing circle" again facilitated by the elder who states, "We may find resolution; maybe not. But the important thing is that we leave as friends." Each family member is given the chance to talk. Margaret's anger at being denied a reunion with her sons when contact was first made is clear: "Bob, you'd be a dead man if I made it to the States. I understand now and forgive you, but it's difficult." Tina is moved by Margaret's courage and states that she cannot imagine her pain. Both women are mothers to the boys.

     Ashok tells them that "love and patience were the best gifts you ever gave." He knows that he would not have survived growing up in Winnipeg, and he apologizes for the hurtful things he said to them. For Curtis, the meeting went well, but there has been no lasting connection. Ashok is no closer to Bob and Tina; there are no plans for another reunion. Curtis states that "adoption saved my life. The families' willingness to meet is a testament of their love for me." He chooses not to let either side define him.

     A Place Between is a very moving film. Curtis is brave for initiating the meeting of his families and even more so for filming it. So many things could have gone very wrong. This film has great potential in any Family Studies class or Sociology or Parenting or Native Studies. Excellent discussion could come from any number of the aspects of this film.

Highly Recommended.

Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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