VIFF 2012 Review – High Five: An Adoption Saga

The Wards and their five adopted children are the focus in the documentary High Five.

High Five is a documentary filmed over a five-year period. It’s a story about international adoption and about a couple’s iron will to let their heart win out over politics, finances, and inter-family strife in their attempt to adopt and parent five Ukrainian siblings. We don’t get what we expect to have but we do get an eye opener on the subject of international adoption and the lives of all seven.

We first meet Cathy and Martin Ward, a couple from Surrey, BC who’ve always wanted children. A car accident to Cathy ten years earlier to which she constantly needs operations for even now makes pregnancy very risky. They first decided to play host to a 7 year-old Ukrainian orphan named Alyona in 2006. During the visit, they learn that Alyona have additional siblings. They bring Alyona with her next oldest sibling Snezana the next year. The following year they visit all five at the orphanage in Gorodnya, Ukraine. They decide to adopt all five but laws allow them to only adopt two at the time. They first adopt Alyona and Snezana but promise the other three–Older siblings Yulia and Sergey and youngest sibling brother Sascha–that they will adopt them the following year. Politics delay the adoption of the other two siblings for years. After much struggle–political, financial and emotional–the three other siblings are finally adopted. Problem solved, right?

Not completely. Even before the full adoption process we learn of potential problems that could arise. The five come from an abusive household in Ukraine where their mother died and their stepfather was an abusive alcoholic. It took the courts to remove the children from the stepfather and put them in the orphanage. All five remember the abuse very well. The gap between the two adoption periods also has an effect on the siblings too as there’s a sense Yulia has lost some feelings to the two others. One thing to keep in mind is that Yulia, the oldest daughter of the five, acted as the mother figure to her four younger siblings in the orphanage. There are also the health problems of the two. Martin is a nurse at the BC Children’s Hospital but Cathy needs frequent surgery from her car accident and Martin has a bout of the flesh-eating virus. Sergey himself has a growth stunt that has slowed his growing down to which he’s only 4’6″ at the age of 17. The adoption process is also a financial risk. The process was very costly and Martin would have to take a nursing job in the territories to help make finances more manageable. Then there’s the fact that the siblings are growing up. There’s always growing pains and approaching adulthood for some. Even Sergey returns to Ukraine temporarily for better job opportunities.

The biggest difficulty appears to be the relationship of the family with Yulia. Yulia has always been a sensitive and emotional girl. Since the adoption, Yulia would now have to go from the mother-figure to the parented. This does not fit well with her as she’s so used to being the mother figure. Her relationship with Martin is mostly unaffected but it’s sour with Cathy. The bad vibe also doesn’t go well with the other siblings as they find her hard to stand, even Sergey whom she’s always been the closest with. On top of it, she’s a growing girl who’s graduating from high school, working a job, has a boyfriend and is entering adulthood. She had made two trips to Ukraine both for employment purposes and to meet with another sibling of theirs who was adopted by a Ukrainian family.

The documentary ends with Yulia still in Ukraine. She still has a negative attitude: “I have no mother.” The other four are still seen being parented by Martin and Cathy. The documentary ends with the six on a local snowboarding trip. As Martin looks out to them as they’re having fun, we’re left wondering what he’s thinking about as he watches them. As for the documentary’s ending, it ends with a ‘to be continued’ ending. It leaves off in the present as the continuing story that it is and leaves one asking questions. Will Yulia return to the family? Will the five be one again? Will any of the other sibling try to pursue opportunities in Ukraine? Those are questions only time has the answers for.

This documentary is a good example of international adoption and how it doesn’t always worked out as wished. It didn’t have a completely happy ending nor did it have a tragic ending. It just presents the story as is and is able to balance the positive aspects with the negative aspects. As I just said, this documentary ends without a real ending. It’s a story that continues to this day with the cameras no longer rolling and will have changes to the lives of all seven over the years. Nevertheless I wish the Wards and the five all the best in the future.

Directors Yulia Ivanova and Boris Ivanov did a very good job of filming this story which appears to be like a daily or yearly chronology of the adoption story over the five-year period. Even though most of the documentary is narrated by Martin, the story is seen through a wide variety of angles: both the parents and the siblings themselves. There are moments when it’s about the family and moments when it’s about one individual. They give the right focus for each situation. Sometimes they try to be mediators in this situation by attempting to help the interviewed subjects by giving advice behind the camera. That doesn’t become a weakness for the documentary. This documentary does give a feel of being like a reality show but this is not a ‘reality show’ as one would commonly associate with popular reality TV. There’s no sensationalism or explosive brattitudes. This is a real situation with real human emotions present and real problems and crises arising in the adoption process.

This is another documentary that’s meant more for the television than for the big screen. The fact that it’s produced in association with the Knowledge Network is the best example of why. From what I heard at the screening, it will be shown on The Knowledge Network in British Columbia in December. I have no information about whether there will be a DVD release for it. I feel it’s worth a DVD release since this is good teaching material. Those interested in international adoption will get a good experience to what it’s like and the potential risks that lay ahead.

High Five is as much a documentary that tells a story as it teaches. It presents a common story of international adoption that presents the viewer with the stories of the individuals as much as it does with the family. It’s worth watching.

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