Video & Filmmaking

From Mainland China to Maineland: New Documentary Follows Chinese Teenagers to a Maine Boarding School

July 23, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Miao Wang

Mainland’s movie poster.

Director Miao Wang’s new documentary, Maineland, follows two teenagers from China over three years at Fryeburg Academy, a boarding school in a small town in Maine. Part of the wave of “parachute students” who are recruited by private schools in the U.S., Guangzhou-born Harry Junru He and Stella Xinyi Zhu of Shanghai are the products of China’s growing elite, and their wealthy parents see an American education as a stepping stone to success in the global economy. Maineland is partly a coming of age story, and partly a story of culture shock. Shot entirely on DSLRs, the documentary shows the sharp contrast between the booming metropolises the students left, and the struggling small town where they landed.

“I don’t think Americans realize how big a contrast that is,” says Wang, who began filming in 2012, as Maine was still reeling from the recession. Shanghai, she notes, “looks like the city of the future. Then you arrive in a small town in Maine. You see these rundown houses and an empty Main Street. I wanted to show that contrast.”

Wang was introduced to Fryeburg Academy in 2012, when the school invited her to speak at a screening of her previous documentary, Beijing Taxi. Walking into the school, she was surprised to see many Chinese students. When the admissions director mentioned that he makes two trips to China a year to recruit and interview applicants, she asked to accompany him.

Based in New York City where she runs her own production studio, Wang is interested in the transformation of Chinese society. In Beijing Taxi, she documented the lives of three taxi drivers who are trying to adjust to the capital city’s frenetic modernization, and the widening gulf between rich and poor. Wang wanted to explore China’s new wealthy elite, and thought following parachute students would offer her entry into their world. She also had a more personal interest in the students’ stories. Born in Beijing, Wang moved with her parents to the U.S. at age 12. “I know the experience of being a teenager and coming into another culture is quite alienating. That was my initial impetus” for embarking on the project, she says.

Accompanied by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, a long-time collaborator, Wang traveled to China to film the interviews Fryeburg’s admissions director conducted with applicants. He told the applicants “we were an independent film team,” Wang explains. “That gave us a way to film more than 40 applicants.” While Williams filmed, Wang recorded sound, and also looked for students who would make interesting subjects to follow for three years. Among the applicants likely to be accepted to Fryeburg, Wang says, “Stella just stood out.” Vivacious and outgoing, Zhu said she had dreamed about going to America since middle school, when she saw “a famous movie called High School Musical.” Wang says that the more introspective He “maybe seems like any Chinese boy,” but his self-awareness impressed her: “He had a philosophical edge to him.”

© Miao Wang

Cinematographer Sean Price Williams and director Miao Wang shooting in the town of Fryeburg, Maine. Fryeburg Academy actively recruits students from China’s growing upper class.

Spending time with the students so early in the admissions process helped her win their parents’ trust. Zhu’s father “was always really open,” Wang recalls. “He had wanted to show how wealthy China is now.” Wang was able to shoot inside the Zhu family’s large, Western-style house, which has a large foyer with cathedral ceilings and a crystal chandelier. She filmed Zhu and He preparing to depart for the U.S., and then during their school years, followed them home during school vacations. Maineland includes intimate conversations between He and his father, who encourages him to “cherish” the opportunity afforded him. His mother tells him, “You carry the hopes of the entire He family.”

Over the next three years, Wang worked on Maineland between jobs working on commercial productions. She funded the film herself, and used frequent flier miles to cover her travel. When they embarked on the project, Williams and Wang were shooting on a Canon 5D Mark II. “I didn’t have much of a budget for anything and for the price range, that was definitely the best camera for us especially at that time,” she says. She had two lenses, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm, and early on, she purchased a Zeiss 85mm, which Williams used during the admissions interviews.

“Then after the 5D Mark III came out, it was so much better, especially for the cityscapes,”she says, so she invested in it. She notes, “Sean and I love rich colors and I feel that camera gives the look we like.” The film features vivid footage of Shanghai at night, glittering with colored lights.

“I feel like Sean can use any camera and make things look great,” Wang adds. Though Williams is renowned among independent filmmakers for his cinematography on fictional features, he was mentored by legendary documentary director Albert Maysles. Wang describes Williams as “a very agile documentary filmmaker.” He did most of the camerawork on Maineland, while Wang recorded audio with a simple kit: a Zoom recorder, some wireless mics and a boom mic. Williams fashioned some small rigs—one made from a plastic toy, “which was popular with the kids,” the other a film camera stabilizer he adapted. In capturing footage of bustling Shanghai, “I wanted it to look like more dizzying and more handheld,” to contrast with the Fryeburg’s slow pace, Wang says. “I think the only time we used a tripod was for static shots in Maine.”

During one year that Zhu and He were attending Fryeburg, Williams was busy shooting other films. Wang turned to cinematographer Shaogung Sun to help shoot in China, and in Fryeburg she did most of the camerawork herself—“because I’m picky about cinematography,” she says. She typically asked a woman to record sound, so they could spend time in the girls’ dorms. The film captures scenes of Zhu with her friends gossiping about boys, and getting ready to go out. Zhu also tries out for the school’s cheerleading squad.

Filming teenagers presented many challenges, “for all the reasons why they’re also interesting subjects,” says Wang. “They’re changing their minds all the time, their mood is constantly changing. And they get bored. They’re very hard to pin down.” At times, for example, “Stella would say she’d do something and she wouldn’t.” Wang says that after her experience at Fryeburg, “I have a lot of respect for teachers now. I don’t know how they wrangle the students.”

The lives of her subjects took twists Wang never anticipated. Not long after Zhu started at Fryeburg, her parents separated—something once unheard of for traditional Chinese families, Wang says. “I think it made her life tumultuous. Also, her parents were hesitant to be filmed after that,” she says. She assured them, “I’m not interested in doing an exposé on her family.”

Zhu’s attitude towards home was also evolving. “In the beginning, she was so fully embracing everything American,” Wang says, “but then began saying, ‘Maybe I want to go home after all.’” By contrast He, who says at the start of the film, “I have a very blurry impression of the U.S.,” was often alone at school, and retreated to a music room to play the piano. Yet near the end of the filming he announces he might stay in the U.S., and imagines working for the United Nations.

Reviews of Maineland have noted that Zhu and He socialize primarily with other Chinese students, raising questions about how much cultural exchange the boarding school provides. Wang has a different perspective. “In China, a lot of people don’t meet people from other cities. People from the north stay in the north,” for example. About the friendships her subject formed at Fryeburg, she says, “It’s like they had to go to the other side of the world to have a network of people from all across China.”

Wang had edited sections of footage, but began “focused editing” in 2015. She decided to record more voiceovers to “balance the interior voices with the exterior life.” In mid-2016, she felt “stuck,” uncertain how to organize material that spanned so many years. “Staring at footage for months at a time makes you too close to it to come up with new ideas,” she says. She and her co-editor set the material aside for three months while they worked on freelance jobs. “The break helped,” and sparked new ideas. She used interludes of He at the piano to bridge time gaps in the film, for example.

“Coincidentally, the first day we got back to editing was the week after the election,” she adds. She looked at the film in a new light, as Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and suspicion of China gave the film “more urgency and clear relevance,” she says.

In March 2017, Maineland was shown at the SXSW festival, where it won a special jury award for Excellence in Observational Cinema, and attracted offers from several distributors. Wang signed with Abramorama, and Maineland is now being shown in theaters.

Since filming ended, He has remained in the U.S., getting a degree in international relations. After getting a business degree, Zhu returned to China to work in her father’s factory. Says Wang, “The two of them took X-shaped paths. That was not what I expected, but I like the fact that that happened.”

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