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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: October 16, 2017

Award-winning documentary follows Chinese students at Fryeburg Academy

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Harry rides a bike in a scene from "Maineland." Photos courtesy of Three Waters Productions

Harry rides a bike in a scene from “Maineland.”
Photos courtesy of Three Waters Productions

“Maineland,” the new documentary from acclaimed documentarian Miao Wang (“Beijing Taxi”) examines the societal and economic factors driving the rise of foreign students (particularly from China) choosing to come to America to attend high school. In the case of “Maineland,” that phenomenon is told through the experiences of two such Chinese students, Stella Xinyi Zhu from Shanghai and Harry Junru He of Guangzhou as they navigate the ordinary trials of the American high school experience at Maine’s Fryeburg Academy, along with the added challenges of familial pressures, culture shock and the reality of their four-year coming-of-age being documented by Wang’s cameras. The film, which is screening this week at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville and next week at Fryeburg Academy, recently took home awards from both SXSW and the Independent Film Festival of Boston and sees Wang’s intimate portrait of growing up in Maine (and very far from home) depicting a changing world through the eyes of two very different teenagers. I spoke to Wang about choosing Freyburg Academy, the realities underlying the rise in foreign enrollment in American schools like it and how filming teenagers (of any origin) presents unique challenges.

Stella at her graduation form Fryeburg Academy.

Stella at her graduation form Fryeburg Academy.

Of all the schools in America, what made you choose Fryeburg Academy?

There was a lot of coincidence. I was invited to screen “Beijing Taxi” there and, being driven from the Portland airport, I realized it was a lot more remote than I expected. (Laughs.) I was already thinking about the topic (for what became “Maineland”), the idea of following these students from before they leave China to after, and I saw all these Chinese students at this school in a pretty remote area in Maine. It turns out that their admissions director goes to China to interview, and we hit it off and kept in touch.

Fryeburg is a small, Oxford County town with a pretty prestigious school in the center of it. How was the students’ experience different perhaps from what they expected?

For most of the families, they knew only as much as they can get looking in a brochure, or a website. It’s not so real when you’re imagining it, that part of America. Most Chinese students, when they think of the U.S., they think of places like New York, or Boston — big, coastal cities. Everybody knows Boston, but even though it might only be an hour and a half or so away, many don’t realize that you can be in America and not be in a major city, so it was quite shocking when they first arrived. There are practically no places like that in China. Even small towns have quite a large number of people, and Fryeburg is such a different environment than what they’ve known. The quietness and nature — that is something everyone loves.

The differences in Chinese and American education must have added a whole other level of difficulty to Stella and Harry’s adjustment.

The classes are very different. The film starts in China, and we show how everything from the large size of classes to the way students aren’t really expected to have a dialogue with teachers is completely different. Chinese students learn to appreciate that, but it’s hard.

What’s driving the push for Chinese families to send their kids abroad for high school?

There are several. First, the Chinese college entrance exam is notoriously hard. It’s an exam that determines essentially everything in your life, and if you fail, your options are limited. You have to pick what you’re going to study beforehand, and it’s very strict and competitive. More students are trying to avoid this exam, either because they’re a more creative person, or because they just don’t do well in that kind of system. The other factor is the rise of the Chinese middle and upper-middle class. The world is a much more global place, and these families feel that they want their kids to have more exposure to the outside world, to learn English and to have a wider, different perspective. Which is a little funny, considering how contrary that is to how things are going in this country.

Speaking of that, during the five years you worked on this film, things have changed, in that there’s a rise in reactionary sentiment about foreign-born people in America. Was that something that informed Harry and Stella’s experiences, or yours?

That certainly made me feel more aware of certain things, especially in the editing process. Things students said in footage that, at the time, I wasn’t paying as much attention to, perhaps caused me to interpret more sharply as the process went on. What I started to shoot first were the interviews, from the first moment of having decided to come here, and I wanted to see how hopes and dreams changed, and how their outlook on America changed. There’s been this big wave of students, and I was curious about how that was going to affect everyone involved, the ongoing dialogue between people learning about each other, going to school together. I tried to show the different perspectives on both sides and to see how it can be a positive thing for both sides, helping to make each more open.

Stella and Harry adapted to life in Fryeburg in their own ways. How did their relationship with you and your cameras change as they went through this doubly challenging high school experience?

As is the case with any documentary that follows people over a period of time, that relationship changes. I will say that making the film has given me more respect for teachers. Working with teenagers is not easy. (Laughs.) One of the reasons why teenagers make such interesting subjects is that so much is happening within them, but that also means that sometimes they’re asking, “Why is this camera following me all the time?” It’s understandable, but being at the whims of a teen all the time — and being back in high school essentially — that was … logistically difficult, let’s say. (Laughs.) On the other hand, you can’t force someone to be filmed who doesn’t want that, so the relationship was always constantly changing. Harry and Stella have had different reactions to the experience, but I think it was a positive one in the end.

“Maineland” is showing at the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville through Thursday. For tickets, showtimes and directions, go to railroadsquarecinema.com/maineland. And the film will also be coming home, in a sense, as Fryeburg Academy will host a screening of the film on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m., which is open to the public. For details, check out the “Maineland” website, mainelandfilm.com/screenings.html.

Watch the trailer:


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