Thursday, June 08, 2017

DFW ’17: To the Moon and Back

Today’s Russia is a truly Dickensian nation, rife with orphanages, where special needs children are consigned to lives of institutional anonymity and often times abuse. These innocents have been victimized several times over by macro forces outside their control, starting with the lingering Soviet prejudices against those not fully able-bodied and labor-ready and most recently by Commiczar Putin’s ban on American adoptions. Susan Morgan Cooper chronicles the events that led up to the adoption ban and introduces viewers to the children and parents who have been cruelly separated in To the Moon and Back (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Dances with Films.

For propaganda purposes, the adoption ban legislation was named the Dima Yakovlev Law, in reference to Chase Dmitri Harrison, a Russian toddler adopted by a Virginia couple, who tragically died a few months after arriving in America. Cooper does not try to sweep the circumstances of his death under the rug. Instead, she interviews the still-grieving Harrisons at great length about their adoption process, their brief life together, and his sad passing. Granted, it is easy to demonize Miles Harrison in a kneejerk way for forgetting his son in their hot car on a particularly stressful morning, but the Russian system also bears responsibility for the under-development of his vocal and communication skills. Regardless, the Harrisons were more devastated by his death than any of the posturing Russian nationalists.

Thanks to cruel fate and Vladimir Putin, Bill Browder is linked to their story. He was one of the first investment bankers to set up a Russian fund and became an outspoken advocate of financial transparency. For obvious reasons, this did not sit well with Putin, who expelled Browder and plundered his company. Much to his regret, Browder retained the idealistic attorney-auditor Sergei Magnitsky to document the crimes carried out by the Putin government. Magnitsky’s subsequent arrest, torture, and prison death by bludgeoning would inspire the Magnitsky Bill, which froze the assets and banned entry to eighteen Russian officials complicit in the death of Magnitsky and the looting he had investigated.

Naturally, Putin had to retaliate, so he sacrificed the most vulnerable Russians to do so, using Harrison and a handful of other cases (out of thousands) as a pretext. Cooper interviews many prospective parents whose adoptions were cancelled, even though they had already been approved by the authorities and bounded with their children.

Clearly, these kids are the biggest losers from Putin’s churlish power play. There is virtually no domestic adoption within Russia, especially for special needs children. Without the possibility of
American adoption, they truly have no realistic hope of a future. Yet, perhaps most chillingly, the film also illustrates how an authoritarian regime can cynically exploit an isolated incident for purposes of propaganda and distraction.

To the Moon is often agonizingly difficult to watch. From a viewers’ perspective, the Harrisons’ pain is almost unbearable to witness. Yet, the agony and anger of parents whose late-stage adoptions were abruptly canceled are nearly as raw and visceral. The documentary also provides a genuine public service with its clear and compelling explanation of the Magnitsky affair, scoring a long, frank interview with Browder.

Taking its title from one of the would-be adoptive parent’s expression of love, To the Moon is one of the most emotionally devastating exposes you will see all year. However, it is nice to see Sen. John McCain leading the fight for greater human rights accountability in Russia, especially considering the unfathomable affection for Putin expressed by our supposedly Republican president. Indeed, this is one of the most critically timely documentaries currently on the festival circuit. It really ought to be at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival too, but that fest has apparently lost its way and its soul. Very highly recommended, To the Moon and Back screens tomorrow (6/9), as part of this year’s Dances with Films, in downtown Hollywood.