TO THE MOON AND BACK (2016) review
written by: Susan Morgan Cooper
produced by: Susan Morgan Cooper
directed by: Susan Morgan Cooper
runtime: 85 min.
U.S. release date: February 24, 2016 (Sedona Film Festival) & January 22 and 23, 2017 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
“To the Moon and Back” is a documentary that contains many of the themes that were prevalent in some of the best movies from last year – grief, guilt and forgiveness. The difference is there are no actors and what is shown actually happened and is still happening in real life – and here I though I was just going to be watching a movie about adopting Russian children. This informative and frustrating film, written and directed by Susan Morgan Cooper (“Mulberry Child”), features a handful of American families who desire to adopt Russian children and the steps the Russian government made to block that from happening. The film covers what these families went through and why the authorities in Russian enacted a law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans. It’s a heartbreaking story that finds countless victimized children mired in a political quagmire.
The film opens by introducing us to American families who’ve been involved in the process of adopting children who were living in orphanages in Russia. Of the families we meet, there is the Moriss family, the Wallen family, the Pederson family and then there is Carol and Miles Harrison. Cooper prominently follows the Harrison family, we learn where they live, how they met and why they started the adoption process. At the same time, we’re introduced to Bill Browder, an American investment banker who had worked in Moscow for years. It seems odd to include Browder, since it’s assumed he has nothing to with these adoptions, but his inclusion increased my curiosity, since it seemed obvious that this documentary isn’t just about adoption. In fact, it’s even more curious that we do not see these couples with the orphans they’ve mentioned.
There’s also a narrator present, a young woman, who, based on her own disclosure, was herself adopted from Russia. She guides us throughout the film, breaking down the statistics of orphans, many of them with disabilities (some due to fetal alcohol syndrome), in her homeland and has a calm and comforting voice that draws us in deeper into the lives Cooper and cinematographer Quyen Tran, has introduced us to. In the back of my mind, I continued to wonder if we’d meet this narrator, which proved to be another aspect that of a film that continued to capture my interest.
More time is spent with the Harrison family in their home in Purcellville, Virginia as they take us through their adoption process. Carol recalls the memorable day – that every adopting parent is familiar with – when she got the call that a boy has been found for them in an orphanage in Pskov, Russia. Through talking head interviews, photos and videos from the Harrison’s trips to Russia, we see their first meeting with Dimitri “Dima” Yalovlev, the infant boy chosen for them. They are given an hour during their initial encounter and we hear Miles recall how his wife instantly looked like a mother as she say down with their soon-to-be son. After a rigorous process, they were able to take the boy back to America, where they named him Chase Dimitri Yalovlev, getting him acclimated to family and friends.
In July 2008, three months into their new family, Chase died after being left in his father’s car for nine hours while he was at work. Miles had forgotten to drop the boy off at daycare on his way to work. I was reluctant to even mention the travesty that befell the Hatrrisons, but the rest of film revolves around this devastating event and inadvertently effects the outcome of the other families receiving their Russian children. Indeed, seeing Miles and Carol retell their unfathomable loss is powerful and challenging to watch, but the rest of the film provides us with the expanded ramifications of their loss and how the other families were never able to receive their children.
The death went to court where a judge eventually acquitted Miles of involuntary manslaughter in Fairfax County, Virginia, on January 2009. As the case made national news in Russia, it shed a light on abuse cases involving Russian children adopted by American parents. Following the child’s death, Russian federal prosecutors opened an investigation into the circumstances of the incident, while Russian authorities called to restrict or end the adoption of Russian children by Americans. This was realized on December 14th, 2012, when President Vladmir Putin passed The Russian Adoption Ban, preventing any Americans from adopting Russian children, halting 259 pending adoptions.
This move was in retaliation to a bill President Obama passed on December 14th, 2012, called the Magnitsky Act, which placed sanctions on Russian officials who were involved in a tax scandal exposed by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky against Russian officials. Magnitsky worked for Browder and had been arrested by the Russian government after linking a large-scale theft to Russian officials. Magnitsky had died from abuse and torture after serving over a year in a Russian prison.
It becomes surprisingly clear that “To the Moon and Back” revolves around how the aftermath of the Russian Adoption Ban has effected the American families Cooper includes here. Because of the ban, thousands of Russian orphans have no hope of being adopted and the parents we’ve met are left distraught over their inability to keep the promise made to their orphans, unable to complete their dreams of becoming a family.
This is where frustration merges with an already heartbreaking film and also reveals its goal to get the message out that there are both Americans and Russians who oppose this ban. It’s a ban which benefits no one and will continue to be opposed. “To the Moon and Back” is important, thought-provoking work from Susan Morgan Cooper that is hard to forget and challenging to comprehend.
NOTE: Director Susan Morgan Cooper and Jessica Long and Miles Harrison, who both appear in the film, will be present for audience discussion at both screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, IL – Sun, Jan 22nd at 5:00pm & Mon, Jan 23rd at 7:45pm