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SBIFF

Bringing King to China (Review)
updated: Jan 31, 2011, 5:23 AM

By Jackie Spafford, Edhat Film Festival Correspondent

"Bringing King to China," the latest film from Kevin McKiernan, Santa Barbara-based filmmaker ("Good Kurds, Bad Kurds") and journalist/war correspondent, had its world premiere on Sunday night at the Lobero Theater.

The focus of the film is McKiernan's daughter Cáitrín, an intelligent, confident and highly motivated young woman. The first ten minutes of the film do a smart job of showing us something of where her drive and worldliness come from: she's shown at the age of 9 interviewing Jimmy Carter, and attending the landmark 1990 elections in Nicaragua with her father. At that tender age she already seems very comfortable with international relations. In one touching clip she faces the camera and declares that everything will work out if people just tell the truth - the earnestness we see in her as an adult is already there.

In her junior year of high school she spent a semester abroad in China. We see her at 16, sitting in a public square and negotiating with the police (in Mandarin!) on behalf of her videotaping father. Again we see the same calm and frank manner she had as a child and will exhibit as an adult.

During her university years at Stanford, Cáitrín developed the idea of taking Martin Luther King's teachings of non-violence to the Chinese. She observed anti-American sentiments there after the invasion of Iraq, and wanted to show another side of "America" to them. She worked with the National Theatre of China to produce Clayborne Carson's play "The Passages of Martin Luther King," a feat that a seasoned theater produce might find daunting, but which she navigates with sheer will. Along the way she re-examines her goals for the project, and re-evaluates her expectations of the impact it has on the Chinese.

This very ambitious project is the narrative core of the film, but the heart is the father-daughter relationship. Throughout the making of the film subtle shifts take place as they each learn new things about themselves and each other. Mr. McKiernan takes over the film's narrative at one point to describe his time as a war correspondent in Iraq after Cáitrín talks about how it affected their family. In the Q&A after the screening, he said one of the biggest challenges of the project was having his daughter tell him things about their relationship (on camera) that she'd never told him before, and how this caused him to struggle with objectivity.

In addition to both McKiernans being in attendance for the Q&A, the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler was there. He shared filmmaking credit with Mr. McKiernan; additional archival footage of Dr. King and the civil rights movement provided the necessary background for the mounting of the play.

This film is a fascinating look at a admirable person with an remarkable goal, and a glimpse into an aspect of Chinese life and culture few of us have knowledge of.

"Bringing King to China" will screen again on Wednesday, Feb. 2 at 4:00 at SBMA.

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