Too often, strangers in supermarkets approach Linda Goldstein Knowlton and her daughter, Ruby, and ask, “Is that your real daughter?”
That’s because 7-year-old Ruby is adopted, one of tens of thousands of Chinese babies taken in by American families. Of course, Ruby is no less real than any other mother’s daughter.
Knowlton’s experience as an adopting parent inspired the Los Angeles filmmaker to make a documentary about Chinese children reared in America.
Her film, “Somewhere Between,” makes its Bay Area premiere later this month with runs at Landmark Theatres in San Francisco and Berkeley.
The touching, sometimes heartbreaking documentary follows the lives of four teenage girls. Each grew up in very different families: One girl lives in Philadelphia, another is an evangelical Christian in Tennessee. One is a preppie from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and another a student at Berkeley High.
Yet all four share a measure of sorrow over their past, as well as a curiosity about their country of origin. “We didn’t set out to make people cry,” Knowlton said of her film. “We set out to tell a story honestly and openly.”
Knowlton is Jewish, raised in a Conservative home in Chicago and an alum of Jewish day schools, summer camps and a Zionist Labor kibbutz in Israel.
In her interfaith home now, she and her non-Jewish husband have gone tricultural, exposing Ruby to equal measures of Jewish, Christian and Chinese traditions.
That doesn’t exactly figure into the film. Footage of Knowlton picking up baby Ruby from a Chinese orphanage, and of older Ruby playing on the beaches of Southern California, bookend the film.
In between is Knowlton’s tale of the bright, accomplished teens who speak from the heart about their lives.
“The documentary gods were shining down on me,” Knowlton says. “I wanted a diversity of experience. How did they feel about being adopted, being a teenager girl, race, gender, all the big-ticket items?”
Berkeley teen Fang “Jenni” Lee is bilingual (her mother learned Mandarin before adopting). She returns to China frequently, where she feels as at home as in California, and in the film is seen helping another American family adopt a Chinese girl with special needs, serving as translator and unofficial facilitator.
Lee, now a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, will join Knowlton for a Q&A following screenings Sept. 21-23 at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley and the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.
The film’s most compelling sequence follows 13-year-old Haley Butler on her quest to find her biological parents in rural China. Knowlton’s camera was there to capture that stunning moment.
Haley’s face betrays mixed emotions, but Knowlton affirms it was not a “be careful what you wish for” moment.
“You can’t prepare,” she says. “Everyone in that room in their own way was in shock. [Haley] said she never wanted to make either of her mothers feel excluded or unwanted. Everybody was trying to keep it together.”
The film has been on the festival circuit, having screened at the Portland, Aspen, Vancouver, Twin Cities and Los Angeles film festivals. It also won the jury prize at last year’s Milwaukee Film Festival.
At the film’s recent New York opening, Knowlton participated in a roundtable discussion with members of the Chinese press.
“One said to me, ‘You’re Jewish, right?’ ” she recalls. “He said we have a lot in common: importance of family, education, food and guilt.”
Knowlton’s career includes producing the 2002 Oscar-nominated hit “Whale Rider” and directing the 2006 documentary “The World According to Sesame Street.”
“Somewhere Between” is her most personal film.
“As parents we all want to do the best we can for our children and make sure their lives are as healthy and happy as possible,” she says, “and shield them from pain if possible. But the truth is we can’t. Life is complex and you never know what will be thrown at them.”
Meanwhile, she says, her daughter enjoys apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah and red envelopes filled with money on Chinese New Year.
But has she seen her mother’s movie about other Chinese adoptees? Not yet. Ruby is too young, and not yet a fan of talking-head documentaries.
“She knows that I made a movie about girls from China,” Knowlton says. “Ruby said, ‘I bet there’s a lot of blah blah blah in it.’”
“Somewhere Between” opens Sept. 21 at the Opera Plaza Cinemas, 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F., and Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Jenni Lee will be at Q&As following several screenings. Details at www.somewherebetweenmovie.com.