NEW YORK — The Dark Matter of Love opens with home video showing Cheryl Diaz holding her newborn daughter, Cami, her oldest child with husband Claudio. It’s an apt beginning for a documentary exploring the science of human attachment through the story of the couple’s three other children, adopted from Russia several years ago.
The Diazes, who live in the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, had wanted more children, but failed to have another successful pregnancy. So, when Cami was 14, the family traveled to Russia - accompanied by a documentary film crew - to adopt five-year-old twins Marcel and Vadim, and an unrelated girl, 11-year-old Masha.
Australian film director Sarah McCarthy says she had wanted to make a documentary about the science of infant attachment, love and parent-child bonding. She found the Diazes through University of Virginia psychologist Robert Marvin, an expert in therapy with families of adopted and foster children.
“I wanted to meet the family before they adopted three new children, and I wanted to see what happened to them as they went through that process,” she said. “And when I met the Diazes, I just feel instantly in love with them. They sent me some hilarious pictures of themselves in matching pajamas at Christmas, and I just thought, this is the family I’m going to spend the next couple of years with.”
In fact, McCarthy and her cinematographer moved in next door to the Diazes for a year and a half. Their camera captures many poignant moments, as the family begins a difficult adjustment.
Claudio is exhausted, and he and Cheryl pull away from each other. Cami feels displaced, no longer the focus of her parents’ attention. Masha is emotionally withdrawn, while the twins resist authority with all their five-year-old might, throwing tantrums and yelling insults at their new father in Russian that he, luckily, does not understand - although the film’s subtitles enlighten the viewer.
“It’s difficult for parents to understand the behavior of the adopted children,” McCarthy said,“because they will just push you away and push you away, and it’s not because they’re evil or because they’re trying to hurt you. It’s because they’ve grown up in an orphanage and that’s the way they’ve learned to survive.”
McCarthy interweaves scenes of the family’s life with archival film documenting the early study of parent-infant bonding. The science of attachment began in the 1950s and 1960s, with British psychologist John Bowlby, who theorized that infants need a secure relationship with at least one person who cares for them consistently and lovingly in order to develop normally emotionally and socially.
“Having a relationship with one or a few specific people is absolutely crucial to a child’s developing brain, and if the child doesn’t have that partner, then those neural networks don’t get laid down,” Robert Marvin explains in The Dark Matter of Love.
In the 1960s, an American psychologist Harry Harlow carried out experiments with rhesus monkeys deprived of their mothers. Film of those early experiments, with baby monkeys seeking comfort from cloth-covered wire “mothers,” is a chilling hint at the emotional lives of children growing up in orphanages where there may be one caregiver for every 25 children.
“And that adult, even with the very best of intentions, can’t give the child they interaction they need to learn and feel good about themselves,” McCarthy said.
But research also shows, she noted, that young brains can rewire, and that orphans can thrive once they are in a loving family, as the Diaz children have. “The kids are just blossoming and flourishing in the most extraordinary way,” she said.
The Dark Matter of Love has become unexpectedly relevant in the wake of Russia’s ban in 2012 on U.S. adoptions, which halted 300 adoptions underway. McCarthy is now using her film to campaign against the ban.
“I think the law was politically motivated,” she said. “Having lived an adoption story with Masha, Marcel and Vadim, I was there when they met their family, and I saw these little kids who’d spent their lives in orphanages, wishing for the day when a mother and father were coming to take them away and that day comes, and that dream just comes alive for these children. And there are 300 kids out there who have had that process interrupted. What do you say to a three-year-old child who’s asking for that mum and that dad that came to see them?”
Adoption in Russia is still comparatively uncommon, she observed, with minimal governmental support for adoptive families. The future of children raised in Russian orphanages is bleak. When children age out at 17 or 18, they often end up living on the streets, resorting to crime or prostitution to survive.
McCarthy titled her film after the substance that astronomers hypothesize must exist to account for much of the mass that is missing from the universe.
“Dark matter is responsible for 70 percent of the known universe, and we know very little about it. And love is responsible for at least 70 percent of who we are as people, and we know very little about how that works,” she said.
The Dark Matter of Love has aired on British television, and played to strong reviews at film festivals in the U.S. and Canada. It has also been screened in Moscow and other cities by groups lobbying for repeal of the ban.
Interview by Victoria Kupchinetsky.