By Robert K. Stephen
(TORONTO, ON) – “High Five: A Suburban Adoption Saga” showing at HOT DOCS 2013 is a sweet bitter film. The adoption of five out of six children of a Ukrainian family by a Surrey, B.C. couple, Cathy and Martin Ward overwhelms almost all logical senses. How is it possible that the Ward’s who wanted to adopt a single child under 5 end up adopting a Ukrainian family? The point is that it is the Ward’s family compassion and love that meets a Ukrainian’s family’s misfortune. Six children have seen their mother attacked by an axe wielding vodka fuelled step-father. One has been adopted in the Ukraine while the Ward’s fall into $200,000 of debt to bring the remaining 5 children to their suburban home in Surrey, British Columbia. I am fascinated by the nouveau suburbia architecture of Surrey but entirely confused why “Suburban” is part of the title of the film. My thought that it represents a radical and idealistic dichotomy from the stark realties of the Ukraine orphanage from where the children were adopted from? When one of the children says, “Daddy got drunk and was killing Mommy with an axe.” How can you not be stunned by that statement and try to interpret it within a Canadian suburban context?
One is overwhelmed by the sad story of the children and their back and forth journeys and separations to and from the Ukraine and Canada before the 5 are all reunited in Surrey. One is in a state of emotional numbness if not triumph as the family settles into suburban life in Surrey. What a victory and struggle to adopt 5 children. The nature of this task is overwhelming and its conclusion of togetherness creates a temporary intellectual numbness. But all is not the sweet hereafter which creates a bit of a sentimental jolt for a viewer dabbing moist eyes with all the tribulations and raw emotional energy gushing from such a sentimental quicksand.
However as the over sappy music fades reality of dysfunctional North American family life settles in nicely and thank goodness the music and the family dynamics never quite settle into a Disney unreality. There is conflict with the eldest Yuliya who has seen and remembered the horrific vodka fuelled beatings of her mother and fellow siblings by a cruel stepfather. Martin recognizes that the Wards will more successfully bond as a family with the younger members of the family whose memories are less corrupted. Great to see real life drama in a scenario that could degenerate into some Disney smileathon. The ending is hardly unexpected as Yuliya and her brother Sergei return to Ukraine for a summer vacation and a voyage of self-discovery. I am not certain what they have discovered in a rather too brief filming of their visit to their homeland and query what is the point of this journey which creates a vacant choppiness in the film.
Does Surrey suburbia manage to swallow emotionally ravaged Ukrainian children? It would seem it does so very effectively for the younger children not totally wrecked by an unhappy family history. Suburban Canada a great healer? But it can’t seem to heal Yuliya who says, “I never had a Mom and it’s hard to have this Mom and Dad and everybody else around you.” The Wards struggle on as a wounded Canadian family and given the task they have undertaken, so terribly well documented by the film, BRAVO.
(High Five: A Suburban Adoption Saga, Director Julia Ivanova, 95 minutes, Canada, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, 1 and 4 May).