In the small town of Pskov, Russia near the border of Estonia, hopeful orphans await the outcome of their pending adoptions by American families. The orphanage is as one would imagine, dreary rooms lined with rows of numbered cribs and discolored wallpaper. Children are huddled in a wooden pen surrounded by toys that none of them seem to be playing with, eyes agape with hope and sorrow. Some will find salvation with a new family while others will remain forgotten.
In Susan Morgan Cooper’s documentary film To The Moon And Back, several parallel story lines intersect in this heart-wrenching tale of adoption and geopolitical dispute. The two narratives at the center of this film are that of Carol and Miles Harrison and investment banker Bill Browder. As the film weaves between various interviews juxtaposed with archival footage and shots of the orphans, the viewer is left wondering how all of these stories will align.
The tragic narrative of Carol and Miles Harrison which takes place in Virginia is unfurled as we hear the firsthand account of one fatal accident that forever changed their lives. Even after years of being labeled as a slew of unsavory adjectives, they bravely tell their story in its truest and most vulnerable form.
“It’s almost impossible, as a director, to gain the trust of a parent who has caused the death of their own child,” says Cooper. “To convince them that you are there, not to judge them as monsters, but to give them a voice; By telling their story, they could save other parents from suffering the same fate.”
The story of Miles Harrison made national news almost 10 years ago when he accidentally left his 21-month-old son, Chase, in the car for nine hours causing him to perish from heat stroke. An instant backlash spread like wildfire turning Miles Harrison into a villain. During his court case, however, friends, family, witnesses, and even the judge ended up attesting to the fact that Miles was not a monster, but in fact a loving, caring father who made one mistake that will haunt him forever. The judge ruled that that burden was punishment enough.
“There’s an overwhelming responsibility in asking someone to relive a very traumatic experience on camera,” says Cooper as she describes working with the Harrisons. “While digging deeper, you constantly worry that your subject may completely fall apart, emotionally and mentally. The challenge is to keep on digging, while protecting them with love and an agenda that’s honest.”
The second story line is that of Bill Browder, a diametrically opposed narrative in comparison to that of the Harrisons. The American-born and educated investment banker was stationed in Moscow for 10 years starting in 1996 where his company quickly became the largest investment fund in Russia. He took on the mission of rooting out corruption in many of the companies that he had invested in which resulted in his subsequent deportation from Russia, relocating him to London. Browder’s work at uncovering corruption made him an enemy to Russia and more specifically, to the infamous President Putin.
The Harrison’s late son Chase Dimitri was their first child and had just been brought home from Russia after a painstakingly long adoption process. The backlash that Harrison received from the accidental death of his son reached Russia and added to a snowball effect that was already in motion. The death of Chase combined with Browder’s digging led to an American adoption ban in Russia which caused the cancellation of 259 pending orphan adoptions. To The Moon And Back reveals the stories behind several of the parents, and orphans, who were affected by this ban.
Cooper’s highly evocative exposé is a glimpse into the ongoing political conflicts between America and Russia. Sharing this story through the eyes of orphans, investment bankers, and heartbroken parents, gives a unique perspective on a conflict that is ever-present in most mainstream American media outlets. Cooper took a ubiquitous topic and told it in an innovative way through both human love and human suffering.
“After the shoot in Virginia, I could not board my plane home to Los Angeles,” Cooper recalls. “I checked into a small roadside hotel and sobbed uncontrollably for two days.”
To the Moon and Back will be screening at the annual independent film festival Dances With Films at the TCL Chinese Mann Theater on Friday, June 9th at 5pm.