The local celebrities look comfortable in the cramped studio, surrounded by audio-video equipment and books, patiently describing the project they have gladly let monopolize their lives for the past 19 months.
Kevin McKiernan, 64, and Caitrin McKiernan, 28, are the homegrown father-daughter team responsible for an international movement toward cross-cultural understanding between the United States and China. Together — he behind the camera and she in front of it — they have produce a feature-length documentary, Bringing King to China,now in post-production.
The film depicts the younger McKiernan’s pursuit to produce a play about the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr., with a twist. She dreamed of putting on the play in Beijing through the prestigious National Grand Theater of China, in Chinese, with Chinese actors and black gospel singers on the same stage.
“It’s a long process,” McKiernan says. “We’ve shot over 270 hours in Beijing, India and several states in the U.S., and the final film will only be 80 or 90 minutes.”
She says she is most excited, though, about the prospect of an international movement of Chinese-American dialogue “beginning in Santa Barbara and spreading out to the rest of the country.”
She acknowledges that Santa Barbara is a small community to start in, but adds, “It’s really connected to the world” and “can become a leader by supporting this film; having it start here, show here and using it with lesson plans in schools.”
It all began when McKiernan, who attended Laguna Blanca and Midland schools in Santa Barbara, traveled to Beijing to stay with a host family for more than three months. Her father believes that the self-reliance encouraged at Midland School helped her take the risk, which was especially daunting because the 16-year-old McKiernan didn’t speak a word of Chinese.
“My host sister was 16, and we lived on the eighth floor of a high-rise building provided by the government,” McKiernan said. “Every day we’d bike to school and we became great friends. At the end of it, she told me she thought two people from different cultures could never truly understand each other.” The comment struck McKiernan, who says it both saddened and challenged her to bridge the gap of understanding between Santa Barbara and Beijing.
Starry-eyed ambition never left McKiernan, and was backed with a disciplined fervor to learn and connect more with Chinese culture. She graduated with high honors in Chinese history from Stanford University, building a rapport with lecturer Clayborne Carson. The professor was reputed for his studies on King and wrote the play Passages of Martin Luther King Jr., which McKiernan later translated into Chinese.
After graduation, McKiernan was off to Taiwan under a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to study Mandarin Chinese.
For McKiernan, the journey was only just beginning as she left California for the second time to explore the culture her host sister once told her she would never understand. While immersing herself in the language and society, McKiernan began to consider the prospect of using MLK’s teachings as an opportunity for connection between the Chinese and Americans.
“It’s difficult to bring something to another culture,” McKiernan says. “The idea wasn’t to say the Chinese need Martin Luther King, but rather everyone in the world needs to find a way to have dialogue. King, in this case, turned out to be a person who was a really good springboard for that dialogue.”
It is evident that both McKiernans have a vision: to see two cultures that have little communication build an avenue for purposeful discourse. They had no idea the project would turn into a documentary when Caitrin McKiernan began producing the play, which was a phenomenal success at the National Theater of China.
“I thought this would be a small project,” said Kevin McKiernan, who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his journalism work in some of the most war-torn places in history. Caitrin McKiernan added, “I convinced him to stop doing this work and come over to China to see the thing I was doing, and suddenly it became something much greater.”
For Kevin McKiernan, the reason his daughter explained it as “something much greater” was not the film or even the play, but rather getting to the heart of deep-rooted issues to both China and the United States through building a bridge of dialogue across the Pacific.
“The first responsibility of the people here is to learn about the place they are so quick to criticize,” he said. “We have very strong opinions about China, but we don’t know about it. Learn about it so we can participate in the dialogue rather than just wagging our finger.”
China has faced vilification for its human rights violations, with some nations threatening to boycott the 2008 Olympics in Beijing if the government doesn’t change.
Kevin McKiernan says the accusatory attitude of boycotting something as unifying as the Olympics is backpedaling the problem. “If you want to raise the issue of human rights,” he says, “there are better ways to do it, and one of the ways is through dialogue, where you sit down and you say here is a great model of what worked in our country, and we resisted it.”
The nonprofit film project has been produced largely through contributions and volunteers, but the McKiernans are waiting on an “angel” to help get it finished.
“If we’re talking football, we’re on the 30-yard line,” Kevin McKiernan said. “We’re coming down the field and we need that final push to get across the goal line.”
With the Beijing Olympics coming in August as well as the 40-year anniversary of King’s assassination this year, the filmmakers are feeling the pressure to get the documentary to its final cut and are open to discussing opportunities with anyone interested in the project.
Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at [email protected]