Oklahoma adoptee returns to China in Netflix documentary ‘Found’
Between 1979 and 2015, more than 150,000 Chinese children — mostly girls — are estimated to have been given up and adopted overseas due to China’s one-child policy.
Lily Bolka is one of that number — but she and others like her are not just numbers.
“Whenever I was in high school, I went through a really hard time about my adoption,” said Bolka, who grew up in Oklahoma City. “I’ve been filming for four and a half years ... and the reason is to share my story.”
The Oklahoma State University senior — along with her biological cousins and fellow adoptees, Chloe Lipitz and Sadie Mangelsdorf — is featured in the emotional new Netflix documentary “Found,” out Oct. 20 on the streaming service.
“Being adopted, it was really hard for me to talk to people about it, because I feel like I was never really understood — which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just people really could never see from my perspective,” Bolka said by phone from Netflix’s New York offices. “So, I think this film really highlights very deeply our feelings and emotions through finding missing pieces in our past and finding more about our identity and our birthplace.”
Film focuses on family ties
The film focuses on family in front of and behind the camera: Director Amanda Lipitz’s niece Chloe is one of the cousins at the heart of the film. Lipitz previously helmed the award-winning 2017 documentary “Step,” which followed the senior year of a girls’ highschool step dance team in inner-city Baltimore.
“I watched the girls fall in love with each other. It’s those moments that show that you’ve done something that matters. That’s what you want when
you make a documentary,” the filmmaker said in the “Found” press materials.
“You want it to change the lives of the subjects and you want to watch it happen in front of you. You don’t want to have a hand in it, you just want it to happen. And it did.”
“Found” opens with Chloe, who was adopted from China at 15 months old and grew up in Seattle and later Phoenix as part of a Jewish family, celebrating her 2017 bat mitzvah at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Around that time, the teenager discovered via the genetic testing service 23andMe that she had a biological cousin named Sadie who also had been adopted by an American family and was growing up in Nashville, Tennessee.
They soon found that they had another cousin in Lily, then 17, in Oklahoma City, and the trio connected via FaceTime and text messages.
“It was kind of hard because we never really, truly met each other ... and I think what really bonded us was because of our filming. You know, I can’t really talk to my friends about filming because they’ve never done it before. And Chloe I had the same camera crew,” said Bolka, now 21. “Then whenever we went to China, we all just bonded over everything that we did.”
‘Found’ chronicles trio’s trip to China
When Bolka was a sophomore at OSU, the cousins and their adoptive parents opted to travel as a group back to China. Along with experiencing the culture, food and tourist attractions — including the Great Wall — they worked with a company called My China Roots that could dig the trio’s infant years in their native country.
Liu Hao, their empathetic My China Roots liaison, pinpointed where their biological parents left them as babies, tracked down the “nannies” who cared for them in the orphanages where they lived before they were adopted, and in the case of Lily and Sadie, searched for their biological parents.
When the cousins arrived in China, Liu served as their tour guide on the emotional journey, which is intimately chronicled in the documentary. “I think going through this experience while being filmed definitely did make it harder, because I guess I don’t like being emotional in front of people. I really like to keep it to myself,” said Bolka, who briefly teared up while recalling the trek. “But I think whenever we were in China ... and doing all this very emotional stuff, it became easier because I had Chloe and Sadie with me.”
Along with their life-changing journey to China, “Found” documents several pivotal events in Bolka’s life, including her 2018 graduation from Mount St. Mary High School, her surgery to fix her long jaw and her close bond with her adoptive mother, Debra Bolka, and their big Catholic family in Oklahoma.
“I think the film is beautiful. It highlights a lot of really hard topics that I don’t think are discussed a lot,” said Bolka, adding that she has seen the completed documentary twice.
“It wasn’t an easy trip. Even after, what, two years and kind of reflecting off of it, I’ve definitely grown from it and I’ve matured from it. It’s made me a better person overall. But it still doesn’t really make it any easier just reliving it and watching it, because it still does kind of hit home for me. I do think it is emotional for me — and for Chloe and Sadie.”
As she is finishing up her bachelor’s degree at OSU, Bolka said she is in the process of applying to schools so she can pursue her master’s in accounting. She also works at a Stillwater child care center and stays in contact with Chloe and Sadie.
“I know that they will be a part of my life forever,” she said.