Wednesday, September 13, 2017

CIFF ’17: Maineland

There are many reasons why Chinese parents are sending their teenage children to study in America. A degree from an American university still carries great prestige in China and study abroad also offers a way to avoid the hyper-competitive Chinese entrance exams. As an added bonus, the Chinese students attending Fryeburg Academy in bucolic Maine might just receive an excellent education. For three years, Miao Wang followed a group of Chinese students as they learned, grew, and matriculated in Maineland (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Camden International Film Festival.

With domestic enrollment down, Chinese recruitment has become critically important to traditional day-and-boarding prep schools like Fryeburg, the eighth oldest private academy in America. The outgoing Stella charms her way in on the first interview, whereas the shy Harry makes it in on the strength of his academic record. Both believe it is their familial duty to study business in college, even though she would prefer to take a degree in education and he would rather pursue music.

Not surprisingly, she will be more socially active than he, but both will take advantage of the opportunities that would be unavailable at Chinese schools. In Harry’s case, this means studying the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, which clearly leaves him deeply confused. Stella joins the cheer squad and other Chinese students make their own documentary about their experiences and the perceptions of their American classmates for their film studies class. There will indeed be plenty of culture clash to navigate and it is unclear how wide their circle of friends extends beyond fellow international students. However, from what we see, the teachers really have a knack for reaching them.

Frankly, Fryeburg looks like a truly superior school that really does foster critical thinking. If every Chinese pupil studying in America receives a roughly comparable education, China could be a vastly different country in twenty years—unequivocally for the better. Much like Neasa Ní Chianáin & David Rane’s School Life, Maineland also gives us a chance to track their development over time, with the general trend definitely looking positive overall. The Chinese students clearly have just as strong an emotional attachment to Fryeburg, which says a lot.

Despite their entrepreneurial-class parents’ privileged positions, the Fryeburg Chinese boarding students all come across like good kids who will be decent adults with a wider perspective on life. That is sufficient cause for a little optimism. Any film that gives us a little hope for the future of China is quite welcome, especially considering how vividly Wang’s previous feature-length doc Beijing Taxi portrayed the class-stratifications of contemporary Chinese society. Highly recommended for China watchers and anyone nostalgic for boarding school life, Maineland screens Sunday afternoon (9/17) during this year’s CIFF. In addition, South Jersey residents should also consider Lana Wilson’s The Departure and Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, two terrific documentaries that have already screened in New York and are continuing their festival runs in Camden.