Where East meets Western

Max McGillvray '16 in ChinaThe call of the American Western film myth takes Max McGillivray to the unlikely town of Jackson Hole, China on an ADF grant. 

By Max McGillivray '16
Artist Development Fellow '16

Max McGillivray ’16 was a resident of Dunster House and concentrated in Visual and Environmental Studies with a secondary in History. He was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to travel to China and create a nonfiction film about the resort town of Jackson Hole. McGillivray attended the Berlin Film Program offered by the Harvard Summer School in 2013, and submitted as his senior thesis Dulles: A Fiction, a fantasy film about the childhoods of John Foster and Allen and Eleanor Dulles. McGillivray has been a writer/videographer for the Harvard Arts Blog and an artistic intern for American Repertory Theater’s production of Finding. His future plans include graduate studies and pursuing a career in film. 

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In spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. 
                   –From "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" by Frederick Jackson Turner 

Though Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier thesis was particularly relevant during my time studying American history and environmental history at Harvard, never did I think it would be so pertinent to my study of film. Moreover, never in my wildest dreams did I think it would find relevance to my study of China. Yet, here I am – in a frontier community of Northern China colloquially called “Jackson Hole,” shooting a Western.

The community of Jackson Hole, China is made up of more than 1,500 family homes (and growing) modeled after the architecture of the American West. Security guards wear cowboy hats, neighborhoods are given Western titles such as “Grand Canyon” and “Beverly Hills.” A Christian Max McGillvray '16 in Jackson Hole, Chinachurch sits in the foreground of a small rustic town overlooking a glorious mountain range. Here, residents are inspired to live a new kind of “frontier” lifestyle – one that quintessentially captures the Chinese struggle to redefine itself in the 21st century. 

Western media outlets have profiled Jackson Hole in editorials – some of which haven’t left the residents so pleased with the community’s depiction. The sentiment is shared between residents and management alike: no more western news teams. Crews from both major TV and print outlets were here for half a day, got their factoids and left, says the a young manager in our first meeting. Therefore, access to the community will only be granted to me if I am willing to stay for more than three days. 

Well, that’s good news, I think to myself. My plan is to live at Jackson Hole for three weeks – interviewing the residents, documenting their stories with my camera and together creating a fiction film in the style of a classic American western.

I can understand the collective frustration over Western perceptions of this place. Though Jackson Hole, China has a Western façade, what happens on the inside of these homes is nothing unordinary to Chinese tradition. People drink tea, they meditate, they practice tai chi, they garden. No cattle driving. No shootouts.

And yet, people do come here to escape. In true frontier fashion, residents pack up their families and leave the polluted urban centers such as Beijing to find calm in the mountains. Unlike the frontier, however, they arrive in Audis and Land Rovers. This is a community for the Chinese elite, a group that hopes to forge a new future where nature is appreciated and business is left in the city. 

Still, the leaders of this charge are an older generation that lived through the opening of China and is struggling to retain a culture that seems less and less relevant to their Millennial grandchildren. (I’ve had more than one lunch where a grandchild eagerly explains her decision to enroll in international schools next fall, while her parents and grandparents shudder beside her.)  

My goal in the next three weeks is to use my camera to further understand the psychology of Jackson Hole in regards to the modern Chinese zeitgeist. In so doing, I also hope to better understand the psychology of the American West – a 30-year period that now seems to epitomize the whole American ethos.  Nothing excites me like a Western; it is America’s myth story. But can it be a myth story for the world? Does its message reach farther west than the prairies and the gold mines of the American West? Even farther West? Perhaps, all the way to the East?

The Artist Development Fellowship program, jointly administered by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and Office of Career Services, awards 10-15 fellowships annually to promising and/or accomplished student artists and creators who have an unusual opportunity for artistic growth and transformation. The program is open to all undergraduates currently enrolled in Harvard College, and applications are evaluated by the Council on the Arts, a standing committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. For more information, visit the OFA website or call 617.495.8676.