Summer is when Beijing’s tourism peaks. While many of the city’s temporary inhabitants are just passing through, some are students here for what could be a life-changing experience.

The new documentary Beyond the Wall follows four American teens from the tough streets of Washington DC who are given the rare chance to study abroad.

Studying outside the country is difficult and expensive for most American students. For students from poor neighborhoods, it’s downright unimaginable.

But Beyond the Wall’s students got some help from Americans Promoting Study Abroad (APSA), a scholarship foundation created by Ted Dean, Paula Koda and Mike Dardzinski, former exchange students to China.

Unlike most scholarships, which have many limiting factors, APSA tries to allow a broad group of Americans study abroad to balance out the students from wealthier families.

Director Jesse Burke and producers Alison Clark and Duncan Clark first heard about the program in its second year.

Acting on the hunch it could be a good story, the three traveled to Washington DC in January 2009 to meet the students who went on the 2008 trip. After seeing the impact it had had on their lives, they knew they had found a film.

One of the most interesting students is Jeffery Wood, a model student at Roosevelt High School. He is unusually shy when he appears on camera, and his mother expresses concern about his first trip away from home.

The five weeks in China were hard for Wood.

He could not adapt to the food, did not fit in with his new friends and struggled with the environment when the time came to volunteer at a school for the children of migrant workers.

jeffrey-in-china

Wood and the others spent a hot night crammed into a tiny room with hardwood beds and no air-conditioning. Most ended up sleeping outside on the playground.

He returned to Beijing in 2011 as one of several alumni for APSA’s Booey Lehoo concert. Only two years later, he appears very different in the camera: more confident, outgoing and able to adapt to the environment.

Juanique McNeill was another of the students on the trip. She had a troubled high school history that included expulsion for fighting. McNeill struggled with learning Chinese, but the volunteer work kept her motivated.

Royelle Jones comes from a large family that lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the south side of DC. Many scenes focus on how she and her family struggle to make ends meet.

The most unusual member of the group was Peter Mambwe, who was making his second trip to China. Mambwe was born and grew up in Zambia. When he turned 14, he moved to Washington DC to live with his mother and stepfather.

Seeing Chinese life, education and poverty, Mambwe struggled to decide whether to return to Zambia or remain in the US.

But can a five-week trip have such a life-changing impact?

For the young men and women in the documentary, the trip to China was clearly just the beginning of their story.

Clark, one of the producers, said the film discusses how the chance to do something outside your comfort zone can open your mind to new opportunities.

“I think the impact varies from student to student: for some kids it will be life-changing and for others less so,” she said.

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Beyond the Wall (2013)
Directed by Jesse Burke; Edited by Simon Lee; Produced by Jesse Burke, Alison Clark, Duncan Clark and Philip Qu
Running Time: 77 minutes

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