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The Forgotten World of America’s Orphanages

We have conducted a series of interview with first-time filmmakers showcasing their work at Newport Beach Film Festival: April 15 - 23
Gregg Schwenk, the festival director, vowed from the beginning to make the NBFF a filmmaker-friendly affair.
"I think a lot of the bigger festivals have forgotten what they originally set out to do," he said. "And that's to assist talented filmmakers in getting their films shown in a theater and exposed not only to audiences but to potential investors." That includes both commercially viable films as well as edgier, more provocative fare and first films or docus.

His film will screen at Newport Beach Film Festival

Richard McKenzie works as a professor at the graduate school of management at UC Irvine, a position worlds away from the video-rental-clerk job that an indie director typically holds down while he works on his debut film. McKenzie isn’t your typical hungry young filmmaker, but the documentary he executive produced—Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America’s Orphanages—is one of the most intense and unforgettable pictures in this year’s festival. Did you grow up in an orphanage? Were you adopted?

Richard McKenzie: I grew up in an orphanage in North Carolina in the 1950s. No, never adopted—and never wanted to be. I had an imperfect but, in many ways, an enviable childhood, in spite of the difficulties. What inspired you to make this film?

The genesis of the project dates to late 1994, when Newt Gingrich set off a media firestorm by suggesting orphanages might be a better care option than welfare and foster care. Child-welfare experts declared Gingrich’s proposal "absurd," given that they knew that orphanages of the past "damaged" the children in their care. In the middle of the debate, I wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal in which I wrote that I knew the experts were wrong in the case of my home. The alumni had done well in life and gathered by the hundreds each year for a reunion to celebrate their childhoods. I was overwhelmed by e-mails, faxes and phone calls, mainly from alumni of other orphanages from all over the country who wrote to make two points. First, to say "right on." Second, "my orphanage was better than your orphanage." The alumni told me wonderful stories about how they also gathered each year in greater numbers for their homecomings.
I followed with surveys of more than 2,500 alumni from 14 orphanages. My findings stand in sharp contrast with conventional orphanage wisdom from the child-welfare experts: the orphanage alumni have outpaced their counterparts in the general population by wide margins on almost all social and economic measures, not the least of which are education, income and attitude toward life. The film idea followed easily from my being asked to speak at several orphanage homecomings. I knew this was a story that needed telling.
Nowadays, people are used to confessing all sorts of things about their lives, but that’s not always the case with older people, who grew up in a more restrained time. Did you have any trouble getting your interviewees to open up about some of the dark subjects in the film?

There was no problem at all in getting the cooperation of the alumni. They were eager to tell their stories, knowing that they represented a dying group. We were able to put the alumni at ease by simply putting them in rooms in front of the cameras for two hours each and then following several alumni around their campuses, allowing them to explain the emotions various places evoked. We also filmed at the reunion dances and other events. The film presents a very balanced look at orphanages; it’s generally very positive, but you don’t pretend that bad things didn’t happen.

The film does not attempt to candy-coat the orphanage experiences of yesterday. The alumni tell stories that range from the good to the bad to the ugly. It is real, as we intended it to be. At the end of the first weekend of filming at an orphanage reunion, one of the cameramen found himself overwhelmed by what he had been hearing from the alumni all day. He asked, puzzled, "Why aren’t there more homes like this today?" Perhaps many viewers will ask the same question on seeing the film. What are you working on next?

Do you really want me to tell you about my economic-policy books I have under way? I plan to see what I can do to keep my day job at UCI.
Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America’s Orphanages screens at Edwards Island, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach. April 20, 4 p.m.


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