The new documentary film “Off and Running” bills itself as “An American Coming of Age Story,” which it is. It also happens to be an adoptee’s coming-of-age story, a black coming-of-age story, a Jewish coming-of-age story, an interracial family’s coming-of-age story. But for director and producer Nicole Opper, the 29-year-old filmmaker who brings the story of Brooklyn teen Avery Klein-Cloud and her family to the screen, this is most importantly Avery’s coming-of-age story. With two Jewish lesbian moms and two brothers (also transracially adopted), Avery grew up in a loving home, attended Hebrew day school where for several years she was the only Jew of color in her class, and, as the film begins, is a track star (hence the film’s title) at an all-black public high school in Brooklyn. The film — for which Opper and Klein-Cloud share writing credit — follows Avery’s decision to contact her birth mother, and her often painful, if ultimately inspiring, path of self-discovery and self-definition. (The pair won the WGA Silverdocs Documentary Screenplay Award; the film will be aired on the PBS series POV this fall.) Opper talked with editors Susan Weidman Schneider and Melanie Weiss about how “Off and Running” grew out of her interest in what constitutes family, and about what it can mean to be an activist filmmaker who provokes tough questions from the audience.
Lilith: You’ve said that when you started to make this film you identified with the moms, but there really are divergent emotional paths being followed in the film.
Nicole Opper: The two mothers are supporting characters in the film. Avery is definitely the primary force that we’re dealing with. But that was actually a challenge for me — I went into the film seeing myself in Avery’s family. I’m gay and I knew I’d probably adopt transracially. But I had always been there to tell the story from Avery’s point of view. So it was a matter of stepping outside of my own perspective, to the degree that that’s possible, and understanding how Avery was feeling in each moment.
There was obviously something special about Avery, even from the time that she was quite young — some excitement about her. I first met Avery when I was making a documentary about Hannah Senesh, “Song of Hannah,” distributed by the National Center for Jewish Film, because I’d approached the Hannah Senesh Day School in Brooklyn, and involved them in the storytelling.
I always describe Avery as charismatic. She enters a room and just lights it up — she was just that kind of kid. And that’s Who Am I why there was such a heavy contrast when she became a teenager — which is not at all uncommon for teenagers of all backgrounds — but in her case, it was just a very complex identity crisis she was going through. And even though I met her when she was really a kid, and ultimately I became her teacher, I just always had a sense that she’s so fun to watch, she’s so fun to listen to — she’s just really compelling. It didn’t occur to me to make a film about her until she was 16, but I did already have the sense that she was someone who could really anchor a feature film — which is not easy to do.
Avery’s story seems to open up conversations about a lot of material that doesn’t make it into public consciousness — or private consciousness, for that matter. In the film Avery says some very frank things, like that she doesn’t really know what it is to feel black, that she begins to identify with that part of herself, and it seems she feels her mothers don’t really fit into that part of her life.
That’s been fascinating for me to hear, the private side. Conversations that you imagine are taking place around the dinner tables of interracial families often aren’t, and that’s what a lot of young people are coming to the film and saying in the Q&A sessions. They’re able to use the film as a catalyst for some of those conversations, which was really ideal for us — it was part of the goal of the project. You don’t see a lot of the conflict [between Avery and her mothers] directly on the screen. The conflicts were never about race directly, but about things like who does the chores.
Did people assume that there was some edge of hostility or defensiveness when one of Avery’s adoptive mothers, Tova, hears Avery say she wants to find out who she is, and replies, “I’ll tell you who you are — you’re my child.”
Adoptees respond really strongly to that, and adoptive parents do too, actually. [One adoptive dad] came up to me and said, “God, that just drove me crazy, it was so painful for me to watch how Tova responded.” And I was really taken aback, because I had always read that line as her really trying to be the protective mama. Just trying to make sure Avery knew “I’m here for you, you do have an identity, I’m not going anywhere. I’m your mom.” And here was this adoptive father saying that he saw it as her not giving Avery the space to be who she was, she was trying to construct it for her, and as adoptive parents we just can’t do that. There’s seems to be an impulse to pass judgment on the parents in this film — and to pass judgment on Avery, too — which I can’t stop, but as a filmmaker, I never pass judgment on them.
That’s part of why that scene is so powerful — it’s got that built-in ambiguity.
Exactly! It’s interesting, there have been reviewers who’ve pointed up quotes like this — one that got a lot of attention was when Tova says, “You take after me.” Sure, it’s maybe a little bit interesting or provocative — “Oh, she’s suggesting Avery takes after her, but they’re not biologically related” — but I think that needs to be problematized. This girl was adopted at birth; of course she’s going to take after these people who nurtured her and raised her and created her whole environment.
And then there’s the comment that comes up all the time [at screenings]: “Why can’t Avery just be grateful for all she’s been given?” — by parents who think of themselves as rescuers. We’re seeing this now regarding adoptions from Haiti.
You’ve said that Avery and her almostsame- age adopted brother Rafi, who leaves for Princeton as Avery begins her senior year of high school, had very different fantasies about finding their birth families.
I think Avery’s fantasies about her birth family have changed a lot over time. Right now, she’s much more concerned about her birth siblings—meeting them or just having them acknowledge her existence, since she’s not sure if they know about her—and we’ll see if the film makes it to their television sets, and how we’ll deal with that in the future. But I do think she imagined herself going down to Texas and opening the door and seeing how it would go. I don’t ever think she saw herself adopting a new family, but she was interested in getting to know everyone. They share a lot in common- -all of her birth siblings are athletes, and she looks a lot like her birth mom, whose picture she’s seen. I’m sure she had a lot of fantasies about meeting her birth family. Actually, Avery and Rafi fit into this interesting sociological pattern. We know that girls search for their birth parents — usually just their birth moms — at far younger ages than boys do. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large girls start searching around Avery’s age, sometimes even younger, and boys generally don’t until they grow up and start families of their own.
Why is that? Do you think it’s because girls themselves are capable of giving birth and so they’re especially yearning to understand the history or the process of their birth mothers’ life stories and the decision to relinquish a child for adoption? Avery suggests this connection just a little when, after she has an abortion, she says in the film “I would never want to put up a baby for adoption.”
There’s a lot of speculation about that, but I think the reasons are all across the board. I think oftentimes it’s really just about emotional development, and that happening later for males. In Rafi’s case, he wanted to be in control all the time, and he didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that control — which might also be a male thing.
It’s striking to see Avery back at the reunion of her Hebrew day school, seeing Hebrew lettering on the walls, seeing the labels on the drawers in the family’s kitchen marked in Hebrew for dairy cutlery, watching the archival footage of Jewish holiday celebrations. When you speak at screenings of “Off and Running,” do a lot of people ask about the Jewish piece of it?
We also work with Bechol Lashon (an organization dedicated to building “a Judaism that transcends differences in geography, ethnicity, class, race, ritual practice, and beliefs”) and the Jewish Multiracial Network, and the Foundation for Jewish Culture. And the UJA Federation women’s group has just embraced the film, which is great….The film is a catalyst to begin the discussion in interracial families. Avery, in the film, really celebrates her Judaism and really connects to being Jewish. Her struggle comes from outsiders looking in, feeling as though how could she possibly be Jewish and questioning her authenticity as a Jew. She says, “When people first meet me they don’t see me as being Jewish.” But she herself has always felt strongly connected to the community, because she was raised to be a part of it — she attended a Jewish day school until the 8th grade, went to shul every week.
There’s an inside and an outside feeling. Someone has said that “To adopt is to adapt.” Avery is in a constant state of adaptation — like all teenagers.
The film follows Avery as she leaves the home in which she’s been raised, leaves her mothers and her brothers, and for five months stays with various friends, missing school, having limited contact with her former happy household. You were obviously in Avery’s confidence while all this was going on. You knew where she was, it seems, even when her family didn’t.
How did I know when to be the filmmaker and the teacher and the friend? I really was always tottering between those roles, and I knew that there were times when they were in conflict with one another. And I just always made a choice that mentor came first.
Was there always an activist track to what you have been doing as a filmmaker?
To tell the truth — I love the idea of you thinking of me as an activist, but I’m not necessarily drawn to a lot of the work that feels very didactic and agenda-driven. And sometimes that worked against me with this film, because gay and lesbian people wanted to see, you know, perfect parents, and to see a positive portrayal of themselves in the media. And the same goes for all sorts of minority groups that are represented in this film. It was a struggle to negotiate and balance that when what I was committed to doing was following the story as truthfully as possible. I’m thrilled that a lot of adoption groups feel that they can use this film as an education piece. But I’m still figuring out my identity as a filmmaker, and I’m not sure I would call myself an activist filmmaker.
I really believe that there’s a mandate, once you make a film that has the ability to create change, to continue the work, and get it into the schools and make sure the curricula are built, because it’s really not something that anyone else is going to necessarily be interested in championing. It’s really the filmmaker’s responsibility, for better or for worse.
Avery’s struggle comes from outsiders looking Avery addresses the issue of her vulnerability [in being the subject of this film]. She really recognizes it, and she’s very clear : “This was scary, but I went into it with all my eyes open.”
I think the take-away for me was, yes, she made herself really vulnerable and yes, it was very brave of her to do this, but it was her choice and she was in control. At any point, she could have asked for something to be removed from the film, and we talked regularly about what would be included and what would be left on the cutting room floor.
Were there episodes that Avery chose to cut?
Interestingly, there really weren’t. There were a few scenes that got reworked based on conversations that we had — like the scene between Avery and the therapist towards the end of the film. We’d cut it a certain way, and Avery said well, this part feels exactly like what happened, but this part doesn’t feel right, because I didn’t get to answer her the way I wanted to. Things like that; we were able to massage the material until it felt, to her, like it was really representing her experience. That was always at the core of everything.
What’s happening with Avery now?
I just spent the weekend with her — she came down for the [commercial] opening. She just turned 20, and she’s busy running track. She’s on a scholarship at Delaware State University, and she’s living the college life — partying, studying, and establishing her independence, and she’s having a really great time there.
And her moms are still very much her moms?
Absolutely. They’ve been getting along really well. She stays with them every time she’s in New York, and in fact, for her boyfriend, Prince––his parents moved to Philadelphia and he needed a place to stay in New York to finish high school; he’s younger — her moms offered to open up their house to him, and he’s living there. So it’s… one big happy family!
It may sound crazy when you’re still enjoying the success of this film, but what’s next?
I’m actually headed to Mexico, to make a documentary film about three teenage boys growing up in a home for abandoned children in Puebla. It’s a really special home that’s self-sustainable — the boys all work on this goat farm and make goat cheese and sell it around the country to cover their cost of living, but they’re also being educated on-site, and most of them age out and go on to college. It’s a real success story, especially since they’ve almost all been living on the street for some time before they’re picked up by social service agencies and brought to this home. It hasn’t really been replicated, and I’m interested in why… The way I’m perceiving it, and framing it, the film is also about what an alternative family can look like, since these are boys who become brothers, not by blood but by coming together and growing up in this space. I’m interested in exploring the complications of family, the whole notion of what it even means to be a family, and how they get formed, especially when it’s across race and culture. That’s really what interests me.