By Karen Skloss
PBS, Independent Lens, 2010
Reviewed by Molly Remer, MSW, CCCE
I was very excited to receive a review copy of the independent film, Sunshine, airing on the PBS series Independent Lens on Tuesday, May 4. Through personal narrative, Sunshine chronicles the changing social definition of family and cultural attitudes towards “unwed mothers” and “single moms.” Filmmaker Karen Skloss explores her answer to her question, “does history repeat itself?” as she considers her own history as a baby given up for adoption in 1975 by her nineteen year old “unwed” biological mother (Mary) and her personal experiences of giving birth to her daughter Jasmine as a “single mother” in 1999. Since I teach Human Services classes at the college level as well as teaching private childbirth education classes, I was intrigued in the film’s subject from both perspectives—that of someone in the field of social work at the academic level and that of someone deeply invested in work with pregnant women and new mothers.
The images chosen for the film are pieced together from home movies, family snapshots, interviews, and current footage of Karen and her family—both biological and adoptive. Karen and her biomom also make a pilgrimage of sorts to visit the Texas home for unwed mothers in which Mary lived before she gave birth. Karen co-parents her daughter with Jasmine’s father in a fairly unusual arrangement in that they share care 50-50—Jasmine lives with her father half-time and with Karen half-time. Jeremy, the father, also receives some screen time in the film and has some interesting comments to make about how he is perceived as a single father and how that compares to perceptions of single mothers (i.e. as a single father he is viewed as “hero” and not as someone who is just doing what anyone should do). The footage is mostly of the mundane—everyday life: bike riding, walking, people at kitchen tables—and the content is mild. No biting commentary or sweeping sociological conclusions. The story is an engaging one and an emotional connection is quickly formed. Though the content is nondramatic on the surface, the narrative is a multilayered representation of the complexity of the everyday lives of “normal” people and I was moved to tears on at least three occasions.
My medium is the written word—I read and write prolifically—so Sunshine was a change of pace for me. And yet, it unfolded like a personal essay “written” in visual form. I was fascinated in a way I have not been before by the use of film to tell a personal, human-sized story.
The Human Services professor in me would have liked to see a little more sociopolitical commentary—the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions about larger social issues that could give context to the personal story. The childbirth educator in me was delighted to see some footage of what appeared be a gentle, positive homebirth with Karen laboring in a birth pool and then giving birth in a supported squat on the floor. This footage is without commentary, but appears to be a midwife-attended homebirth with both Karen’s biomom and adoptive mother present as well as the father of her child.
As the film concludes, Karen states that, “it is hard to understand the times you’re living in, because you’re living in them.” Sunshine is a compelling portrait of one woman’s efforts to explore those times.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this film for review purposes.