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"I don't think that they ever fathomed what rural America was."
A football team composed of two local teens from a rural town in Oregon and seven foreign exchange students is not exactly what you would expect when you think of all-American, high school pigskin team. But, as one student put it in an entirely non-American way, "We are like many chopsticks together — nobody can break it."
That's what Ban Du from China told NPR of the team after they got their first victory against a 19-man team.
Though Ban Du's comments and the story of the exchange students from around the world that descended upon Unity, Oregon – a town of 100 residents — is from 2009, it piqued filmmaker Katie Mahalic's interest at the time, spurring her to begin a documentary about the students, the town and what came of their experience when cultures clashed. The documentary, "Welcome to Unity," is just awaiting some final touches nearly five years later.
"Most documentaries are sort of depressing," Mahalic, the film's director, said. But not "Welcome to Unity." In fact, it was the humor of the exchange students during their NPR interview that intrigued her in the first place.
"There's something to be said about the resilient parts of the human spirit that finds the charming aspects of life. I love watching people take things that could have been major obstacles … [who make] them great learning experiences," Mahalic told TheBlaze.
That year, students were from Kyrgyzstan, Taiwan, Serbia, South Korea, German and China. They came from different political backgrounds, different religious beliefs and completely different cultures than the cattle-wrangling West they were dropped off.
When Mahalic first visited Burnt River High School, which had 18 students, seven of which were foreigners at the time, she quickly realized there was a bigger story than just the short film she originally intended. Because she couldn't give up her job as a film professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, she bought Flip cameras, gave community members and students a crash course in film basics and set them about it, checking in on their weekly progress.
As a result, the bulk of Mahalic's film was actually recorded by the people living in Unity.
"I don't think that they ever fathomed what rural America was," the host mother of the students said in the documentary's trailer.
And she was right. Pan in on a scene of donkey basketball on an indoor court as an example.
"When I saw our school, I said, 'Is not school. It's too small for school." So I think, "Oh, it's a supermarket," one of the exchange students said.
It was in fact the school.
Though things like the size of the town and the style — or what they considered a lack thereof — of its inhabitants might have been a sticking point, there were stronger differences at play that could have lead to conflict as well.
In the trailer, the host mother expressed her worry about housing a Muslim student.
"I'm not a terrorist. I just, my religion is Islam," one of the students explained with a smile.
Watch the trailer:
"The thing I want people to get from [the documentary] is that even though you might come from different backgrounds, different religious beliefs, different political beliefs, at end of day we all have commonality of wanting to be human and learn from each other," Mahalic said.
"If you can move those differences aside, I usually find that I really like people for who they are," Mahalic added. "That's what this town did ...they got to crux of what makes them individuals and human beings."
While all the footage for the film is put together, there are several finishing touches that Mahalic estimates will cost up to $30,000 to complete. "Welcome to Unity" has a Kickstarter fundraising page with this goal, but it likely won't make it by its deadline so she said they'll be relaunching with smaller financial goals in a few weeks. Mahalic also said they plan on showing private screenings as fundraisers starting this summer in Chicago, Dallas, Seattle and other cities.
Once the film is ready to go, Pete Ryan, the documentary's executive producer, said they'll test it out in the film festival circuit and will also put it on Tugg.com, which is a Web platform that allows people to vote on movies they want to come to their local theater.
"It's a really cool way for independent films to reach people," Ryan said. "It takes guess work out of how you try to distribute the film and it really connects us well to the fans too."
So with the film trying to wrap up and the exchange students' visit happening nearly five years ago, where are they now? Mahalic said she has kept in contact with the majority of the students and they've all gone on to start careers or attend university.
This story has been updated.
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