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Three Chinese teenagers who were raised in America return to Guangdong, southern China, to search for their biological parents in Found, a documentary streaming on Netflix from Oct 20.

It’s a journey that unleashes a cascade of emotions.

Chloe, Sadie and Lily met each other through 23andMe, a service that matches relatives through DNA samples. Although they lived in Phoenix, Nashville, and Oklahoma City, respectively, they became close friends over social media.

Documentary filmmaker Amanda Lipitz began following the girls after shooting her niece Chloe’s bat mitzvah celebration.

When they contacted My China Roots, the girls and their families arranged a group trip to Guangzhou. There genealogist Liu Hao had been reaching out to orphanages and potential biological parents.

“You go into a verité documentary not knowing where things are going to take you,” notes Anita Gou, one of the film’s producers.

“We wanted to temper our expectations. Everybody was hopeful, but we knew that statistically the search was going to be tough. Our emphasis was more about the three girls finding themselves in different ways.”

“You know, it’s really going on an emotional journey,” Lipitz adds. “Getting inside the girls’ hearts and the hearts of the parents and nannies.”

China’s one-child policy from 1980 to 2015 led to an estimated 150,000 children, many of them girls, put up for adoption.

In the film each of the three girls tries to reconcile their feelings about their biological parents. Sadie, left in a box on a busy street in Yangchun, wonders “how different my life would be” if she hadn’t been abandoned.

Genealogist Liu Hao (right) in a still from Found. PHOTO: Netflix.

Liu’s interviews with potential biological parents add a crucial perspective to the film.

A farmer talks about leaving his daughter at a hospital door, unable to pay the US$8,500 (S$11,430) required to keep her.

A mother who runs a dress shop explains: “I couldn’t bear to have another abortion.”

Even Liu realises she might have been given up. About her childhood, she says: “You know you’re not welcome, you’re the wrong gender. They don’t want you and you know that.”

“Liu Hao also needed this process,” Lipitz says. “She has the most amazing spirit, but she needed to go on this journey for her own healing.”

Sadie (left) in a still from Found. PHOTO: Netflix

Lipitz and her crew made three trips to China to film potential biological parents.

“To be able to look into people’s eyes and hear what their hearts were saying was such a privilege,” she says.

“Not only did I learn more about China, but I learned more about Liu Hao and what her life was like growing up as a young woman.”

“We had to navigate the sensibilities of the people we encountered in China,” Gou adds.

“But I think the attitude was that this story is bigger than everything they’ve gone through. I think a lot of these families weren’t just looking for their children, they also wanted a chance to speak about the experience.”

When the girls travel to China and see the orphanages where they were raised, the culture shock is palpable. Liu brings them to their “finding places” – a street, a tree by a fence, a crowded bridge.

The emotional responses can be overwhelming, but Chloe, Sadie and Lily have each other to lean on for support.

(From left) Lily, Chloe and Sadie in a scene from Found. PHOTO: Netflix.

“We always put the girls’ emotional well-being above any filmmaking,” Lipitz points out.

“This is my second film with teenage girls, after Step. What’s so important is checking in with the girls and the parents and making sure everyone’s on the same page.”

At one point in the documentary, Liu asks Lily to look at photos of her potential biological parents.

“Lily can’t do it,” Lipitz remembers.

“That was such an incredibly emotional night. We shut the cameras down and I looked Lily in the eye and I said, ‘You know, we don’t need to do this any more.’ But it was not even an option for her, she so badly wanted her story to be told. What gave the girls the courage to tell their stories also gave us the courage to keep going.”

Chloe (right) in a still from Found. PHOTO: Netflix.

Gou was a producer on The Farewell, with Awkwafina playing a Chinese-American who reconnects with her family in Changchun, and Honey Boy, Shia LaBeouf’s account of his troubled childhood.

Abandonment and cultural dislocation are themes running through her work.

“As somebody who grew up sort of between cultures, between identities, constantly wrestling with these questions, I certainly have a personal affinity for these stories,” Gou says.

“But thankfully these experiences resonate almost universally. Anyone might be in similar situations, combating these kind of questions. Hopefully it can be cathartic to see these stories represented.”

Shaping the material proved difficult, but Lipitz credits editor Penelope Falk for helping find the film’s emotional arc.

(From left) Lily, Sadie, Chloe and genealogist Hao in a still from Found. PHOTO: Netflix.

“It’s hard to cut a scene that starts in Oklahoma and ends on a pepper farm in Guangzhou, you know?” she laughs.

“But Penny spent so much time understanding each character. Our associate editor, Yijun He, was born and raised in China. She was an incredible asset in translating and helping us make the right choices culturally.”

The girls will meet again this week in New York for the documentary’s theatrical premiere.

Sadie and Chloe will be entering college, while Lily is considering graduate school.

“They’ve seen the film, and are so proud they get to share this experience,” Lipitz says. “I think they are really focused on their futures right now.”

Found will start streaming on Netflix on Oct 20.

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