Richard McKenzie, an economics professor at UCI’s Graduate School of Management, was executive producer for the documentary film ‘Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America’s Orphanages,’ which premiered to a sold-out audience at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 20.
Orphanage life is a subject to which McKenzie, a former resident of Barium Springs Children’s Home, has devoted much of his attention. He has written a book called ‘The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage’ about his own childhood experiences and has edited an essay collection entitled ‘Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.’ But ‘Homecoming,’ which he spent eight years planning and producing, is his first film on the subject.
McKenzie hopes that the film, which is told through interviews with former residents of four orphanages, will serve to counter popular representations of orphanages as ‘hellholes,’ a view which is disseminated through films such as ‘Oliver Twist.’
‘The old Dickensian images of life in an orphanage have a stranglehold on the debate about orphanages,’ McKenzie said.
These notions of children begging for more gruel from a cruel master are far from the reality that most orphans experienced, according to McKenzie and other orphanage residents interviewed in the film.
‘I’ll be the first to say that there were bad orphanages and some orphanages damaged children in their care,’ McKenzie said. ‘But the same is true about foster care or all families. Most orphanages did well according to the kids who lived there.’
In speaking with other orphans about their upbringing, McKenzie said that he receives one response overwhelmingly.
‘They say, ‘My home was imperfect, but it was pretty damn good,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie said that in his studies of former orphans, he has found that most went on to live very successful lives.
Of the children he interviewed who grew up in orphanages and graduated from high school in the 1950s, 80 percent have college degrees.
McKenzie described seeing the film come to life as a ‘dream come true, but the reality was better than the dream.’
According to McKenzie, this dream only became a reality through the tireless work of many volunteers.
‘The film credits ran for 10 typed, single-spaced pages,’ McKenzie said. ‘But there were only six paid people on the crew, four cameramen and two producers.’
The film was directed by George Cawood and written and edited by Sheila Moreland.
‘My role was that of conceiving the film,’ McKenzie said. ‘I gave editorial control to this group of people … They deserve a lot of credit for producing a film at this level of sophistication.’
The filmmakers originally wanted to focus on the darker side of orphanage life.
‘The film turns out to have a very positive thrust, but the filmmakers were looking for bad stuff because in filmmaking. What you want is dramatic tension,’ McKenzie said.
After conducting interviews with between 50 and 100 orphans for two hours each, the filmmakers resolved to show the more accurate, though less dramatic view of orphanages as a positive influence on the children who lived there.
McKenzie told of a cameraman who came to him after two days of shooting.
‘What he saw conflicted with everything he knew about orphanages, that orphanages were bad places,’ McKenzie said. ‘He asked, ‘Why aren’t there more homes like this today?’ That’s the question we want every viewer to come out asking.’