When Susan Morgan Cooper, a documentary filmmaker (whose daughter Alexandra Cooper has contributed photos and articles to the Buzz in the past) screened her last film at UCLA a few years ago, a woman who saw it said came up to her and said, “You have to make a film about the Russian adoption ban.”
The woman was referring to the sudden action by Russia in December, 2012, banning all adoptions of Russian children by American families. Cooper looked into the issue and “after doing the research, I discovered I was very, very angry” that two superpowers, the United States and Russia, were “playing with people’s lives” and dooming many children who might otherwise have been saved to lives of suffering. The result is her new film, “To the Moon and Back,” about the adoption ban, the families caught up in it, and one father who has borne an especially heavy burden in the issue.
The origins of the adoption ban, traced in the film, go back to a case of financial corruption in Russia, after which a whistle-blowing attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, was tortured and killed. (Cooper said the case is well detailed in the book “Red Notice” by Bill Browder.) In response, late in 2012, the United States passed the Magnitsky Act, imposing sanctions on Russian officials involved in Magnitsky’s death. According to Cooper, this action angered Russian President Vladimir Putin, who – just 14 days later – banned all American adoptions from Russia, including 259 cases in which families had already bonded with their new children, many with special needs, and were in various stages of making arrangements to bring them home to the U.S. But while Putin’s adoption ban was generally seen as an “anti-Magnitsky bill,” both in Russia and the U.S., Putin himself claimed the ban was necessary because of the death of one American-adopted child who had died not long before when his father, Miles Harrison, accidentally left him in a hot car.
“To the Moon and Back” explains this complicated history, and focuses largely on Harrison, legally cleared of wrongdoing but still devastated by the loss of his son and now an advocate for preventing hot car deaths. (Cooper reports that Harrison testified just two days ago at a congressional hearing introducing a new “Hot Car Act” that would mandate alarms in all cars to alert departing drivers that a child, elderly person or pet is still in the back seat.)
Since making the film, Cooper has become involved in both issues – working to get the adoption ban lifted and supporting the Hot Car Act – even though she calls herself “apolitical.” She said congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle have been working together to urge President Trump to work on getting the adoption ban repealed. She doesn’t know yet if that will happen, but still holds out hope for the bipartisan effort. “If all the time [Democrats and Republicans spend] arguing could instead be put into saving childrens’ lives…wow,” she said.
But Cooper also says the hot car issue may be just as challenging to deal with, if not more so…because most people just don’t want to talk about it. “It’s amazing how much apathy there is out there,” she said. “When I tell people, ‘we’re trying to save children’s lives here,’ you can almost see the words going over their heads.”
The problem, she says, is that most people find it easier to label someone who forgets their child in a car a “monster” because “it relinquishes them from thinking it could happen to them.” The truth is, however, she said, that leaving a child in a car is something that can happen to anyone — when people are stressed out and the cognitive portion of their brain is overloaded, they tend to go into auto-pilot mode and the more simply reactive “lizard brain” takes over. And in that state, as a memory expert explains in the film, it’s easy to forget things like how you traveled the last few blocks…or whether or not you actually dropped off your child at day care.
When people start to understand how the mind works in such situations, Cooper said they become much more receptive to the message that hot car deaths can be more easily prevented. In fact, she said, a group of police and fire department first responders at one screening of “To the Moon and Back” thanked her after the show and said it had completely changed their minds about how these kinds of incidents happen.
“To the Moon and Back” will screen at 5 p.m. this Friday, June 9, as part of the Dances with Films festival at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. A Q&A session with Cooper and Harrison will follow the screening. Tickets are available at https://danceswithfilms.com/to-the-moon-and-back/.
To the Moon and Back screening
Dances with Films Festival
Friday, June 9, 2017, 5:00 p.m.