By John Black
Call it cinematic serendipity.
Documentarian Miao Wang was invited to Fryeburg Academy, a private, coed boarding and day high school located in blue-collar small-town rural Maine to screen her film, Beijing Taxi. She noticed a large contingent of Chinese students at the screening and around the campus, an unusual site that started her on a three-year filmmaking odyssey.
The result, Maineland, won the Special Jury Award for Excellence in Observational Cinema at SXSW.
“I can identify with the students being so far from home because I moved with my parents from China to Boston when I was 12 years old,” Wang said. “Experiencing that big a change in your life at that young an age leaves a huge impression. The idea of meeting and getting to know these students as they were going through the experience was very exciting to me.”
Wang met with officials from Fryeburg Academy who were very enthusiastic about her idea, going so far as to invite her to accompany officials on their next recruiting trip to China where she not only met with students, but filmed the ones who were applying to the academy.
“It was my unofficial casting call,” she said. “It gave me a chance to get to know the students before the idea of a film was ever presented to them. It made for a more honest and open first meeting.”
Although she knew she wanted her film to focus on one male and one female student, Wang said she kept an open mind as she filmed the student to discover which way the story might lead her. After all, when you are about to commit to filming someone for a few years, it’s important to find the right persons from the start. It wasn’t too long before she found who she needed: Harry and Stella.
“They come from such diverse backgrounds and were looking for such different things from their experience in America,” Wang said. “Harry is very driven to get the best education possible; he knows that, as the sole male heir, the future of his family depends on him. Stella is much more interested in the social aspect of the school and finding out what the life of an American student is like outside the classroom.”
Watching how Harry and Stella follow their dreams, and how their dreams change over time, is fascinating as they immerse themselves to varying degrees into American culture. The changes they go through, which may seem natural to an American parent watching the film, are dramatically underscored when Harry and Stella return to China for their summer break with their family.
“Everything has changed about Harry and Stella.” Wang said, “and it’s a strange period of readjustment for them and their families. It’s a cycle they go through the more time they spend in America.”
Along with looking at the cultural and social aspects of student traveling overseas to study in America, Maineland also looks at the financial implications such programs have on the American educational system. To put it bluntly, schools like Fryeburg Academy couldn’t stay open if it wasn’t for the influx of money these students bring. “A year at Fryeburg costs more than $50,000, so four years of high school is $200,000 and then there’s the cost of going to college in America to be added later,” Wang said. “So as important as the cultural exchange part of these programs is, the real impetus for American schools going around the world to recruit students is money.”
For more information about Maineland, including future screenings and release dates, click HERE.