BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM chats to Stephanie Cook, subject of a new documentary by Vanguard Films’ Russell Campbell.

FOLLOWING on immediately from the Vanguard Films retrospective at the Film Archive, Sisters from Siberia is the latest addition to the Kiwi collective’s stable. Directed by distinguished documentary-maker and academic Russell Campbell, the touching documentary follows Wellington City Councillor Stephanie Cook and her quest to adopt two girls (Katya and Nadya, aged nine and four respectively) from Siberia. The documentary moves to look at the two girls’ struggles/triumphs in trying to adapt to New Zealand life. Campbell frequently digresses from the main narrative, and adds interviews with former Russian citizens – and reveals the diversity, energy and colourful nature of the vibrant Russian community in the city. The documentary has its world premiere on Sunday September 20 at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington.

Cook became the subject of Campbell’s documentary simply because “Russell has been my neighbour for nearly twenty years and he asked me”. Cook is active in the political scene of the city, and wasn’t too worried about having her private life shown to the public on the big-screen. “Many public figures have their private life in the media from time to time.”

Cook had already received some media coverage when she decided to try and adopt someone from Russia. I ask why she put her story up on film, especially something like adoption that’s sometimes considered too private to talk about in the public domain. “Because of my job, I knew it was unlikely the media would not be interested, so I decided to ‘front foot’ it. I wasn’t anxious about it, many others have done this too, just not people with the profile I have. I feel like I am in control of the process.”

However, adopting girls in the situation that Katya Cook and Nadya Cook were in in Siberia could lead to all sorts of issues as a new parent. For one, they may have come from terrible backgrounds (including foetal alcohol syndrome which wouldn’t manifest itself until the girls were teenagers; trauma and abuse). The documentary shows Cook and the girls forming a bond very quickly, and Cook seemed to fall into parenting rather easily. “Surprisingly and luckily, as it doesn’t always happen like this, we formed a very strong bond very quickly. I’ve said to people for me it was a bit like love at first sight. And the girls seemed to bond with me very quickly too. What probably helped was that I learnt Russian before going to meet them, so I could communicate a bit. As for the actual parenting, it came very naturally to me, surprisingly perhaps for someone who had lived alone for many years.”

That said, the process was quite rigorous for Cook in getting the children in the first place, and the documentary opens with Cook’s initial bureaucratic struggles. “The process was very rigorous, and that’s how it should be to protect the children. It’s governed by an international convention although not all countries are signatories. It has absolutely been worth it.” The girls are shown as adapting very quickly to New Zealand, and Cook wasn’t too worried about them not adjusting. “Children are very adaptable, and they were very excited about coming home. To these children having a family is a bit like going to Disneyland for Kiwi kids.”

The film also pays tribute to the Russian community. Cook has found herself getting to know the Russian community in Wellington. “I have really enjoyed getting to know the Russian community. It's great for the girls to be able to be involved and to know that they are not alone. I didn't realise what a large Russian community we have here.”

By being part of the film, Cook and her daughters now have their own intimate picture of their early days in Wellington. Campbell has captured little struggles with life, aspects a lot of people would consider too small, and imbued it with warmth and empathy. “Russell has provided me with the footage after every shoot, so we now have about 5 hours of footage. It’s a fantastic resource for the girls as they have nothing from their life in Russia, no baby photos etc. And I just love looking back over those early days.”

See also:
» Russell Campbell on Vanguard Films