By Andrew Cohen
“Bringing King to China,” a feature-length documentary about Cáitrín McKiernan ’11 and her effort to achieve cultural connections through the messages of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been selected by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Directed by her father, longtime filmmaker Kevin McKiernan, the movie will premiere Jan. 30 at the 650-seat Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, and be shown again Feb. 2 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler also worked extensively on the film.
Cáitrín taught in Beijing after attending Stanford, where she majored in Chinese History and also studied with preeminent King scholar Clay Carson. The history professor had “written a compelling play about King,’’ Cáitrín said, and she decided to try to bring it to audiences in China. “I thought it could provide a valuable way to help open dialogue both within China and between Americans and the Chinese.”
When asked why the play succeeded, an experienced Chinese scholar in the film tells Kevin McKiernan: “I know how many obstacles there are. The only way she succeeded is she didn’t know how tall the mountain was.”
Cáitrín first went to China at age 16 for a study-abroad program. After graduating from Stanford, she received a Fulbright to conduct oral histories in China and began teaching in Beijing. When the Iraq war began, Cáitrín found that, where in the past the Chinese people had been largely receptive to Americans, “now they were really questioning what we were doing in Iraq.”
Shooting for the film began in December 2006, and includes footage from China, the U.S., and Iraq—where Cáitrín’s father spent several months covering the war. The film includes a harrowing account of when she mistakenly learned that Kevin had been killed in Northern Iraq by a suicide bomber.
In 2007, The National Theater of China presented five performances of the play at the Oriental Pioneer Theater in Beijing —marking the first time in the modern history of Chinese theater that African-American and Chinese actors shared the same stage. “I brought over five American gospel singers to join the all-Chinese cast,” Cáitrín said. “That really helped the show come alive.”
The performances were preceded by discussions about King’s philosophy and its potential relevance in China—where King is studied in school. Free tickets were distributed to a diverse audience that included government officials, U.S. embassy staffers, women seeing their first play, country migrants, and students.
While studying with Carson, Cáitrín had access to speeches and letters King had written—even love letters to his wife. She says that enabled her to “humanize” King, and to help his messages resonate with Chinese students.
“Most students viewed non-violence as a passive action rather than a powerful and active tool,” Cáitrín says. “But when I’d use photos, such as one from 1963 of a police dog attacking a child, that was effective. We’d talk about why this boy decided not to retaliate, and that made King’s message come alive. Visuals help people speak across borders. That’s a big reason why I pushed so hard to get this play produced.”
In addition to his extensive photojournalist experience for network news outlets, Kevin has made several feature-length films for PBS. His work has been published by Time, Newsweek and The New York Times, and appeared on ABC, CBS, and NBC. His 2001 film, “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds” won several awards.
Cáitrín was nine years old when she joined her father while he covered the 1990 Nicaraguan elections. “She saw a lot of poverty, some war, and some refugee camps,” Kevin recalls. “She was exposed to a lot that most kids her age don’t see.”
From that point on, he says, Cáitrín continually showed a passion for human rights and bringing cultures together.
“My dream is to use this model, theater plus discussion, and bring it all over the world to help spark global discussion,” she said. “I don’t think King has answers for our generation, but he provides a good jumping off point to talk about how we want to make the world better.”
For more about the movie, and to view a preview, visit the film’s web site.