Film & Television

Searching for Family, Lost and ‘Found’

“Between 1979 and 2015, China enforced a law allowing only one child per family in an effort to control population growth. Estimates say that over 150,000 Chinese children, mostly girls, were given up and adopted overseas.”

So begins the heartfelt documentary Found, written and directed by Amanda Lipitz. The movie isn’t about 150,000 children or the extreme and harshly enforced government policy that displaced them (for a powerful overview of that era, see instead One Child Nation). Found is an intimate story about three particular Chinese-American girls, teenagers coming of age and on a quest to discover where they came from and, in doing so, who they really are. 

Most teenage girls in America today have too much on their plates. They worry about the future. They live their lives on social media. They’re torn between their identity as the child of their parents and the adult they’re fast becoming. Anyone who’s ever mothered a teenage girl (or remembers being one herself) will agree; it’s not the easiest time.

In many ways, Chloe, Sadie, and Lily are typical American teens. But each in her own way struggles a bit with being an Asian child growing up as part of a white family in a predominantly white community. They all wonder about their birth parents. And they long for a better sense of their own biological roots.

They have one other thing in common. They’re cousins.

This news arrives thanks to genetic testing from 23andMe. Chloe finds Sadie, who finds Lily, and soon the three girls have connected through videoconferencing. An immediate, warm, and welcome bond grows despite their physical distance. The girls live, respectively, in Arizona, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. What they know of their early lives is similar; they were found abandoned in boxes on busy streets, taken to orphanages, and eventually adopted and brought to the U.S. 

While the girls revel in their newfound connection, Lipitz takes time to depict each as her own person. Chloe is Jewish, already knows Hebrew, and wants to learn Mandarin next. Sadie seems disinterested when her mother shows her photos of her Irish immigrant ancestors. “They have no ties to me,” she shrugs, but also admits, “I’ve always thought of myself as an American.” Lily, the oldest and headed to college, needs surgery to correct a jutting jaw. She worries that she will be erasing a physical trait that might have connected her to her birth mother or father.

Chloe, Sadie, and Lily are fortunate that their adoptive parents (Chloe has both a dad and a mom, but Sadie and Lily are being raised by single mothers) are so supportive. As the girls connect and exchange shared questions about their past, a plan is formed. Working with an organization called My China Roots and a Beijing genealogist named Liu Hao, the three girls and their mothers travel to China in search of answers.

Liu works tirelessly to reunite Chinese parents with the babies they gave up years ago. As a second child, and a girl, she was nearly abandoned herself until her mother’s parents interceded and paid exorbitant fines so the family could keep her. She never felt quite accepted, however, particularly by her father. Because of this, she relates well to her three clients, befriends them, and encourages them in their search. She explains to them that once they know their roots, “You can find the peace in your heart.” Her detective work trying to piece together their pasts is fascinating, and she is endlessly compassionate with all of the hopeful birth parents she meets. Forced to give up their babies by China’s heartless One Child Policy, these people long for news of their lost children as much — if not more — than the girls dream of answers about their parentage.

While the glimpse into Chloe, Sadie, and Lily’s everyday lives is familiar and endearing, Lipitz’s film gains momentum when they meet at last at a hotel in China. Two of the girls want to find their birth mothers (Chloe is hesitant and decides she’d rather not). With Liu as their guide, they sample Chinese culture and visit the Great Wall, as well as the provinces in which they were found as infants. Lipitz strikes an engaging balance: the everyday incidental, three teens on vacation together, is mixed with the potentially profound; will they be reunited with the families they left behind?

Each girl, like many adoptees from all different circumstances, has lingering doubts about her past. Why was she unwanted? Didn’t her parents love her? They come to two precious realizations. One, that their birth parents had no choice and likely have mourned their loss ever since. And two, that the nannies (or “aunties”) who cared for them in the orphanages did so with great love. 

As I watched Found, I had to wonder how Lipitz found (no pun intended) her wonderful subjects, was able to take this life-changing journey with them, and consequently share it with us. It turns out the director (whose previous and excellent documentary, Step, was also about young women finding themselves) had an “in” with the girls. As Lipitz explained recently to Women in Hollywood:

“I have a very personal connection to this story. Chloe, one of the young women in the film, is my niece. For me, all films start with an image, and when my brother told me that he was having Chloe’s Bat Mitzvah at the wall in Jerusalem, that was my image. That moment of my Chinese-born niece surrounded by my big Jewish family and all the things that had to happen in order for that moment to happen inspired me.”

Although she admits that fundraising can be a challenge, she encourages other women directors to “Just start filming! Don’t wait for all the red tape — just start!” She also emphasizes listening to your inner voice: “Whenever I ignore my own gut feeling I regret it! Every. Single. Time.”

She goes on to explain her approach to filmmaking:

“My filmmaking career began because I was making short films to help raise awareness around education and what it felt like to be the first in your family to go to college. I did not even realize I was directing — I just wanted to tell these stories. I had never made a film before, and my first feature film, Step, was on the same topic. So, educating young people was my inspiration to become a filmmaker  . . . . When picking projects, I strive to make sure that the underlying core contains a message or movement around social impact, and providing a space for underrepresented people to share their talents and their stories. This infuses all of the creative decisions with inclusivity and a goal of raising voices that are not traditionally heard.”

Thanks to Lipitz and Found, Chloe, Sadie, and Lily have had a marvelous opportunity to raise their voices and be heard. More importantly, they’ve connected with their pasts and realized that they were never unloved.

Found is available to stream on Netflix.


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