Beyond The Wall was conceived as a project in 2008 when the Beijing-based filmmakers learnt of APSA’s (American’s Promoting Study Abroad) first pilot study trip to China.
Director Jesse Burke and producers Alison Clark and Duncan Clark travelled to DC in January 2009. After meeting the kids who had been on the 2008 trip, including Peter and Juanique, and seeing the huge impact it had had on them, the team felt sure there was a story to be told and the producers put up the money to start filming the new set of students coming to DC in 2009.
Initial Filming in 2009
Jesse Burke travelled to DC in May 2009 with videographer Jakob Mader and his twin brother Sven, who was the sound recordist. Royelle and Jeffrey were quickly identified as the two first year students to be filmed, along with second-timers Peter and Juanique.
Jeffrey’s invitation to a BBQ at the White House to meet Obama resulted in a scramble to get permission to film there. We had given up hope of getting access and had lined up a friendly local news team to try to get some shots of Jeffrey, when the press pass came through at the last minute. Which is just as well, as the scene of Jeffrey meeting Obama is one of the funniest sequences of the film.
The crew followed the students to Beijing and filmed as often as possible during their 5-week stay. APSA provided incredible access and the team was able to accompany the students as they went to Inner Mongolia on a field trip and also as they volunteered at a school for kids of migrant workers. At the end of the trip, director Jesse Burke joked that he had suddenly acquired an extra 27 facebook friends. Jesse also acquired another special relationship during filming as he and Maggie Ma, Peter’s Chinese teacher and one of the APSA chaperones, fell in love and became engaged.
Filming One Year Later
A year on, in May 2010, Jesse returned to DC to film the four teenagers and see what was happening in their lives. A tight budget meant that Jesse had to act as both Camera Operator and Director.
In December 2010, we received the sad news that Sven Mader, sound recordist and twin brother of Jakob our main camera operator, had died after being hit by a falling tree in his native Germany. Jakob has since moved back to Berlin to be close to his family and in particular his twin’s two children. Their older brother Kai composed a couple of music tracks for the film.
Back to Beijing – Booey Lehoo Concert
After the follow up filming in DC, production halted for a while as the producers tried to line up funds to finish the film. We had the happy celebration of Jesse Burke and Maggie Ma’s wedding in her home province of Yunnan and then in the Fall of 2011, the Ford Foundation came through with a very generous grant to cover all the completion costs.
Post-production was delayed because we got news that APSA was hosting a benefit concert in Beijing to raise awareness of both their program and the Obama Administration’s 100,000 Strong Initiative which was aiming to boost the numbers of American students coming to study in China. The concert featured Chinese music stars, Coco Lee, Shunza and Sa Ding Ding, and from the US came will.i.am and apl.de.ap from the Black-Eyed Peas and John Legend.
To help illustrate the life-changing effect of study abroad, APSA brought back some of its alumni, including Jeffrey, Juanique and Royelle, so we were able to catch up with them again in Beijing and capture scenes of them interacting with the celebrities. They were even able to dance onstage for the final song of the concert. And scenes from the concert make up part of the final film’s epilogue sequence.
Post-production started in early 2012 with Simon Lee, a talented Chinese-British editor, coming on board. Managing the huge volume of footage (over 300 hours) meant slow progress at first. Director Jesse Burke left to work on the Chinese version of the Amazing Race and then, shortly after we heard the happy news of him and Maggie expecting a baby, we received tragic news of Jesse’s sudden death of heart failure at the age of just 37. Maggie and Jesse’s son Robert was born in December 2012.
Editor Simon Lee and producer Alison Clark stepped up to complete the editing process. Simon had moved back to the UK so editing sessions were done via Skype and by sending mov files back and forth over the Great Chinese Firewall. Both Simon and Alison had to fit in the editing around their other projects and commitments but telling the story of the trip and giving voice to the four “DC Kids” became a labor of love: exhausting but also rewarding.
With acceptance to the Sheffield Doc/Fest Videotheque, we rushed to complete editing of a 77 minute version (in Beijing after Simon returned there from the UK). Beyond The Wall had its first private screening in Beijing on May 29th, with screenings in the UK in the summer.
A new 1 hour edit of the film was completed in late 2014 and screened by the Department of Education to launch International Study Week with a further screening by NAFSA (Association of International Educators) at their annual conference in Boston. Final post-production is taking place to be ready for the film’s TV premiere on the DC PBS station WHUT in September 2015.