Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins is an award-winning documentary by New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly about contemporary artist, Vanessa Beecroft's relentless attempt to adopt baby twins from Sudan. Beecroft is a world-famous artist, most famous for her live tableaus of nude women standing motionless in empty art galleries. The film delves into Beecroft's professional life, borrowing an a brilliant artistic appeal and well-edited style. But Beecroft's career is only the backdrop to the more disturbing main element of the film, which was her obsession with "having/getting" these two Sudanese babies.

Beecroft explains that she visited Sudan and met Madit and Mongor Akot, who were left by their impoverished father to the care of the local village. Beecroft understood this as abandonment, and after breastfeeding the children herself, decided that it was her responsibility to adopt the children. As a Sudanese official explains, Sudan does not have official adoption laws; if a child is left parentless, then the next of kin is contacted and the community takes responsibility for the care of the child. This is common practice throughout many African societies. This doesn't deter Beecroft, and she goes to great lengths to convince lawyers, officials, friends, and family that what she is doing is noble and in the best interests of the twins.

One of the main themes of the film is that Beecroft's social anthropologist husband is completely unaware of her adoption plans. When her lawyers ask her repeatedly if her husband is "on-board" with the plan, (because the adoption cannot proceed without him), Beecroft insists that he is. When she determines that her husband might be a hindrance to her plan, she considers divorce.

Beecroft explains that her desire to adopt the twins is “not just fetishization of the blacks. It will be a beginning of a relationship with that country.” But her actions throughout the movie consistently contradict those words, as Sudan, its people and its children are consistently objectified by Beecroft.

In one of the more revealing scenes, Beecroft is photographing the unclothed infant twins in a chapel for one of her many Sudanese-themed art projects. One of the Sudanese women enters the chapel rightly complaining that it is not right for foreigners to be photographing naked Sudanese children, especially in the chapel. Beecroft has a physical confrontation with the woman, trying so much to continue photographing the children. When the Sudanese women takes the twins away, Beecroft collapses against a barricaded door, mumbling, "These people."

When the father of the twins expresses doubts that consenting to adoption is the right thing, he tells Beecroft (through a translator) that his community and family are worried that these Sudanese children will be taken away and never understand who they are or where they come from. Beecroft quickly responds that she will connect with the Sudanese communities where she lives in New York and visit Sudan with the twins when they grow up. But since she has thus far not made attempts to learn the language or understand the culture, it is unlikely that this will happen.

I believe that Beecroft believes that what she is doing is in the best interests of Madit and Mongor. However, she is unable to that these children may do very well living in their communities, raised by extended family. Beecroft's vision of child well-being is warped by her own Western perspectives of childhood as well as a desire to possess these children and incorporate them into her future artwork. She is also an egoist, comparing herself to the likes of Angelina Jolie and Madonna in her attempts at adoption.

I am not against international adoption, but I am against Westerners believing that they can come in and correct a situation simply because they have the means. As one of the priests that Beecroft seeks (and ignores) advice from says, taking the children away from Africa drains the human capital. These children are needed in their countries to build up their communities/countries and make them strong.

The one redeeming scene was when Beecroft makes a final visit to the village of Madit and Mongor. Tears of joy overcome her as she is welcomed into the community. She sees the twins and then says good-bye.

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