Documentary Funding Award runner-up Adam James Smith on the enticing fantasy of “Americaville” and how he stumbled upon the town

Adam James Smith,  director of “Americaville” and runner-up of our 2016 Funding Award, speaks to Megan O’Hara about stumbling across China’s very own American replica town, what his documentary reveals about Chinese and American identity, and essential tips for documentary filmmakers looking to apply for our 2017 Funding Award.

What first drew you to docs? 

Director Adam Smith
Director Adam Smith

I think documentary is for me a combination of many things that Im really interested in, such as travelling the world, meeting new people, and storytelling. I enjoy the refinement process, taking the chaos of the rough footage and editing it into a story, something that people can understand and relate to and that can reach people all over the world. So I decided that after finishing my undergraduate degree in Fine Art, that I would continue with graduate study in documentary filmmaking at Stanford University.

How did you meet the people that were in Americaville? Where did you make the first connections?

Id been going to China for many years and had a friend who told me about this Wild West theme park in the north of China that theyd visited 10 years ago. I googled cowboy theme parkand I found that there was one in China, but that it had recently closed down.

“I was looking for people that could represent that fantasy of Jackson Hole and who were really enthusiastic about attempting to live an American-style life there.”

There was this other place that popped up, and it was a replica of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, so I looked in to it. It just so happened that I was visiting Beijing, and I ended up hiring a car and driving up there with a couple of my friends. Then when we reached the entrance we persuaded the security guards to let us in.

When we got out of our car to take some shots, the head of the community Liu Xiangshang was on his afternoon walk. We explained to him that Im a filmmaker and Im really interested in his town, and we found him really open to having his community filmed. So I moved out there for 3 months and spent a few weeks following people, focusing on 3 or 4 people that I thought were most interesting. I was looking for people that could represent that fantasy of Jackson Hole and who were really enthusiastic about attempting to live an American-style life there.

Was it awkward in the beginning when you were filming them?

It got more awkward later on. I have a bit of experience in China and I know that in order to get people to collaborate with you, you have to build trust with them, and in order to gain

Photo courtesy of Adam James Smith
Photo courtesy of Adam James Smith

that trust you cant just jump in at the deep end and start shooting sensitive scenes, of them arguing with family, for example. You have to ease in, start by shooting them making coffee, walking their dog, maybe a short interview talking about what they like about Jackson Hole and why they felt compelled to buy a house there. Then gradually as youre building trust you start to ask if you can shoot more sensitive scenes – those scenes of them when theyre not at their best, and I think thats when it becomes a bit more awkward.

The film touches on Chinese identity Has there been any moment where as a ‘Westerner’ you’ve experienced any difficulties, either practical or emotional?

Its been such an interesting place to film in because yes its China, but in many ways its not. In a way they are trying to be something other than being Chinese. When I went there to make this film, they treated me as an authentic white person. I dont want to say that they are trying to be white, but their vision of America is white 1950s Hollywood. Its not Harlem, its not Miami. They are attempting to replicate small town white America. They knew I was English and that Id lived in the US before, and they looked at me like yes, he gets this, hes on board with this too. This is all familiar to him.

Photo courtesy of Adam James Smith
Photo courtesy of Adam James Smith

Has there been any moment where they’ve realised that what they were trying to replicate something that doesn’t really exist?

Recently Ive been studying anthropology and Ive been looking at this quite a lot. My research has been based on this phenomena of building replica foreign communities in China, because Jackson Hole isnt a one off. There are hundreds of communities like this all over China. Theres a place called Thames Town on the outskirts of Shanghai that attempts to replicate small-town rural England. It has pubs and thatched cottages, all of the stereotypes you can imagine. Theres little Amsterdam, theres Paris, you name it, its there. Its all coming from wealthy, industrialised Western countries in Europe and North America.

“Their vision of America is white 1950s Hollywood. It’s not Harlem, it’s not Miami. They are attempting to replicate small-town white America.”

One of the reasons I think theyre doing it is because most of these people grew up in poverty in China. Now theyre experiencing being wealthy for the first time, and there isnt really a Chinese model for it. So theyre searching abroad for these symbols of prestige in order to express their wealth and newfound status in their society.

If you go to Jackson Hole now and you go to the sales centre where theyre selling the houses, if you look in all of the brochures that advertise all the different housing models, theyve copied and pasted white people, white Americans, into the houses- there are no Chinese people. So I think that theyre buying into the life there, and theyre trying to project themselves into this white American fantasy.

How do you think your film will be perceived on a channel like CCTV 9?

Im not confident that the film will be distributed in China, as the political climate has shifted significantly since the last administration came in in 2012. Certainly in the last year theres really been a crackdown on many of the things that Jackson Hole is about: trying to replicate foreign lifestyle and architectural design. I think theyre looking to create a stronger sense of Chinese national identity, and they see these kinds of places like Jackson Hole and Thames Town as compromising that effort to build up a stronger sense of what it means to be Chinese.

Im going to focus on distributing it in America, as I think this film will be interesting for Americans to watch. Its almost like showing them a mirror but the image is distorted, because its their culture, but its been reimagined or slightly misunderstood.

What was the funniest moment while you were filming/ favourite moment?

It has been great fun shooting this documentary because for a lot of the people there this is kind of their playtime. A lot of them were brought up in very strict conditions in communist China, they had very strict schooling, strict parents and regimes within that family unit. So this is like their second childhood in a way.

“I think this film would be interesting for Americans to watch. It’s almost like showing them a mirror but the image is distorted, because it’s their culture but it’s been reimagined or slightly misunderstood.”

Huas husband fractured his ankle riding a motorcycle and she had to look after him. She thought that to make him feel better she would bake him a cake, so she made a recipe from this 1950s American cookbook. It was a red velvet cake, but a special version where you add jello and marshmallow fluff. It was horrendous, and he refused to eat it. That was a laugh out loud moment for all involved.

What was the application process for WWF like for you? How did you find the application form?

I thought the questions were really good, they made you think about why you are making your project, why is it important, why do you want to complete it and what you want to communicate to audiences. It was helpful for me to be thinking about those things. It was a straightforward process, as some applications are very long. I just filled in a post-production grant application that took me a week. They wanted more than 30 minutes of rough cut footage, a statement letter and a long treatment- it was really involved. The Whickers World application was concise.

What advice would you give to anyone who was just starting their application?

Have your characters in place, and have strong characters who can carry the story that you want to tell. I think thats the most important thing. If youre unsure that theyre going to work – perhaps youve only been in production for a short time – then you have to think: I may have a great story to tell, but is my character able to carry the film?

Photo courtesy of Adam James Smith
Photo courtesy of Adam James Smith

How was the pitch for you?

I was nervous because the stakes were high. I mean you either win £80,000 or £10,000 [The runner up will receive £15,000 in our 2017 Funding Award] and there are three other people who wont receive any financial support. Ive kept in touch with a few others from the pitch and it seems that good things have come from it and that its been a good experience all round. [In terms of advice] Id say write your pitch, practice it in front of several people, your friends your family. Get feedback from them and really listen to it. Make it clear in the pitch why youre doing this project, why youre the right filmmaker to make it, and what you want to communicate to audiences.

What’s Next?

Ill be teaching communication arts at the New York Institute of Technology in Nanjing, specifically teaching film classes to undergraduates. Its an American university in China, and the students are receiving an American college degree. I’m really excited about starting the new job there.

Do you have any new film ideas?

I do have one that Im going to hopefully start developing this autumn. The working title is Love in Shanghai, but that will probably change. Basically they still have love markets in Shanghai where parents of unmarried young Chinese people in their 20s and early 30s, [and try to match them up]. Theres a famous one at Peoples Park in Shanghai, where they set up these kind of banners with a picture of their unmarried son or daughter with things like their age, job, salary, health status and what theyre interested in.

“I want to make a film about… the [Chinese] generational divide where this older generation are stuck in thinking that their son or daughter must get married before 30 and have a child. The new generation are all about dating apps or not dating at all.”

All the information is laid bare, and theyre looking to match them up with other people at the love market. If two sets of parents find a match, theyll organise a date, sometimes even organise a marriage without them ever meeting, and place them together. I want to make a film about that, about the generational divide where this older generation are stuck in thinking that their son or daughter must get married before the age of 30 and have a child. The new generation are all about dating apps or not dating at all. Hopefully it will be a film that will look at the generational divide and the changing expectations of people in China when it comes to love, marriage, career and fulfilling obligations.

What will £10,000 enable you to do now with Americaville?

I believe I can finish shooting the film with it. Ill be living in Nanjing, a few hours on the high-speed train from Beijing. I can zip up to Jackson Hole on weekends whenever I need to shoot and then rent equipment, hire a sound recorder and finish the production stage.

What’s the dream for the film?

Id like to have it premiere in America and then from there tour around some of the festivals, universities and organisations in the US. Id really like to see the American reaction to this film, as I think that people now are thinking about what the American dream means. Young people, millennials are really struggling to make that dream happen- to land a great job when you get out of college, get married, have kids, get a mortgage on a Suburban house. Maybe people dont want that anymore, maybe they want something else.

Article by Megan O’Hara & Robbie Pyburn