‘Side By Side’ Documents Myriad Adoptee Stories

Denver-based filmmaker Glenn Morey is using his recent documentary project “Side by Side” to candidly explore the range of emotions and experiences that derive from being adopted from South Korea into a new country and into a family of a different race.

The documentary project will appear in three iterations, in the form of a 38-minute short film, an online series of uncut interview sessions and a visual art exhibition. The short film will premiere in select screenings this weekend.

Himself an intercountry and transracial adoptee from South Korea, Morey spoke with us about his inspiration for the film and its personal significance to him.

Tell me about yourself, your background and your career as a filmmaker so far.

I’m half of a filmmaking partnership with my wife, Julie Morey. We’ve been working together making all kinds of films and documentaries for some 35 years now. This is our latest project, which we co-directed and I produced. We’ve been working on this for the last five or so years. As far as my personal background, I spent almost my whole career in advertising, branding and social media. Only over the last five or six years have I almost exclusively focused on this project. So yeah, that’s kind of me in a nutshell.

What triggered your transition into full-time filmmaking?

My wife and I owned and operated an advertising agency for many years up in Denver, and when we sold it to an international agency holding company about six years ago, we thought it was as good of a time as any to focus on something that would be really meaningful to us on a personal level, and not just business level. This is a project that I’ve been thinking of for a couple of years at least, and the timing worked out.

To what extent can you personally relate to the project’s narratives of race and isolation?

I think there are a lot of commonalities between folks who have been intercountry adopted and transracially adopted both out of Korea, and other countries as well. I don’t think I’m particularly unusual as an individual case. When you look at the life experiences of Korean and other Asian adoptees, a lot of the similarities have to do with issues of upbringing, from an identity and racial point of view. Most of these adoptees were raised in communities where there was very little Asian American influence.

How did you end up connecting with other adoptees, and really taking an interest in their stories?

I was actually kind of a late bloomer. I really didn’t start hanging out with, or making contact with other adoptees until my 40s, and I’m 59 now. Anyway, I started going to various conferences, meetings, and gatherings of other Korean adoptees. These gatherings were located either in the U.S. or in Korea, and gave me an opportunity to be able to hear the life experiences of some of the other Korean adoptees. Immediately, you realize that your experiences are not particularly unique—in fact, they’re commonly shared by most other Korean adoptees, which I think is very affirming, very supportive, very helpful.

What was your motivation for compiling these stories into a large-scale documentary project?

I realized how almost therapeutic it was, to me personally, meeting these other adoptees and hearing their stories. And it’s very clear that even though there’s thousands of Korean adoptees who have shared the experience of meeting each other in these gatherings, there are tens of thousands of others who don’t participate in these events, and are just living their lives out in the world, potentially still thinking some of the things that I thought before I started meeting other adoptees. Then beyond that it was also myself—in the sense that I don’t have any information about my origin. I have no names or places or locations of where I was abandoned; I really have no information to go on, to try to fill in the blanks of my origin.

Hearing the stories of other adoptees was very helpful. Because all of a sudden I can start to imagine, maybe that person’s story is something like what happened to me. Maybe this person’s experience of meeting their biological family is something that I’d be able to identify with, if I ever had that opportunity. So all of a sudden you’re able to sort of fill in the blanks and create a story for yourself almost by proxy; that also really helps fill in the what-ifs of your existence here. That’s what hearing the stories did to me. So in the process of putting this project together, we just kept going to various cities around the world until we got 100 interviews.

What were some of the interviewee reactions to the process? Did they find it cathartic on some level? Did it add some closure, make them feel connected to other transracial/intercountry adoptees, or the Korean American community at large?

When I think of catharsis, I think of a point of release, or relief; something that happens in a contained moment, or revelation. And that’s not what this was. In my mind, these interviews were just part of the continuing process of introspection, about their adoption experience and about their racialization, that they’ve been going through all their lives. And so talking about it is hard. Thinking about it is hard. It’s all very challenging and it’s intense. So yes, emotions were very much out there on camera and apparent for the audience to see—but I wouldn’t call it cathartic. I would just call it a continuing part of this difficult process that adoptees have to come to terms with, their origins and their evolution in identity.

Emotionally, did the process of making the film take you where you expected? Learn anything unexpected?

Five years ago when we started this project, I think I was like a lot of other adoptees, in that I kind of assumed that most adoptees had an experience like mine: adopted as a baby, raised in a loving, nurturing household, with the same struggles everyone else has on the planet, but essentially able to get through these things and become fully-formed adults. The stories that we heard over a course of 100 stories were far more disparate than I would have ever imagined. Some people were adopted at a relatively old age, meaning 10, 12 or 14. They have vivid memories of Korea, or they may even remember their families of origin and their separation from those families. Some people did grow up with loving, nurturing families; some people grew up with anything but. The stories were also disparate in terms of the outcome. How resilient were they to their circumstances growing up? How and how successfully were they able to cope with issues of identity, racialization, and so forth?

On the other hand, hearing these stories made me—or forced me—to realize I had personally sublimated, or buried, strong feelings about some of my own issues with being adopted, and being Korean and Asian American in a community that was anything but. So over the course of the project, I came face-to-face with those, and really had to acknowledge them.

Do you plan on building on this project, for future creative projects?

We’re still in the process of rolling out this project in all of the iterations we think are required.  We started with a website, sidebysideproject.com, where you can see all 100 interviews virtually uncut. That of course is an invaluable platform, for audiences that have a strong connection to this subject, like adoptees, adoptive families, people who work in the adoption industry.  And scholars who study adoption, sociology, anthropology, etc. The second iteration is a 38-minute short that is the briefest of introduction to this subject. And then somewhere in the middle is where we’re going next. We’re creating a traveling exhibit—a video art installation composed of 10 screens, each of which will be showing a short film on a different theme that emerged from the project. There’s a short on growing up; there’s a short on memories of Korea; there’s a short on returning to Korea; there’s a short on reunions with families of origin; there’s a short on adult perspectives; and so on. The art installation is going to premiere next July at the IKAA Gathering in Seoul, then come tour major cities in the U.S. and probably Europe as well.  

Are there any other projects on similar subjects that inspired ‘Side by Side’?

Obviously, there is any number of documentary films about individual adoptee stories, whether it’s about their upbringing, or more typically about their trip back to Korea and reunification with family of origin. Those are not uncommon. We were inspired by them somewhat, but our real inspiration came from the notion that it takes many stories to really understand something as complicated as this. So then you look at an author like Chimamanda Adichie for example, who has quite well articulated the danger of a single story when trying to understand a culture or a period of history—that, I think, is really what led us to this. It takes many stories to understand 60-plus years of intercountry adoption out of Korea.