Journey to Jackson Hole, China in new documentary

JACKSON, Wyo. — When you look past the name and the nearly identical architecture, it would appear that Jackson Hole, China shares little in common with the Wyoming town after which it is based.

When Filmmaker and Director Adam James Smith first tried to visit in 2014, he found a gated community guarded by security agents clad in full cowboy attire who almost didn’t let him in. Unlike the tourism-driven economy in Jackson, Wyoming, Jackson Hole, China doesn’t take too kindly to visitors.

But in at least as many ways, both subtle and glaringly obvious, the sister cities are a lot alike.

Smith’s documentary, “Americaville,” tells the story of an America overseas — an America according to China. Smith will share the film with a Jackson, Wyoming audience Friday, January 24 at The Center.

“In many ways, Jackson Hole, China is based upon Hollywood understandings of the United States and media representations of the US that aren’t always true,” Smith said. “Or, are certainly more complicated when you try to realize them in real life.”

Guards outside the main entrance to the gated community. Photo: Adam James Smith

Smith is British, but his connection to China dates back to his early childhood. The timing of his Jackson Hole, China discovery felt fateful at best, lucky at least. Smith had just released his first feature-length film about a different urban Chinese development when a colleague asked him if he’d heard of this “wild west” just two hours outside of Beijing.

“I decided to rent a car and find this place,” Smith said. It was on that first fateful journey that he nearly got turned away. Instead, he met the “self-appointed” mayor of the town, who invited him and his colleague to stay for two days.

And the deal was sealed. Smith couldn’t get this strange, fascinating town out of his head.

“I just knew I had to be there,” he said.

He pitched the “self-appointed” mayor on the idea of a film and got the green light. He would spend three months living in and documenting Jackson Hole, China during the summer of 2015.

“Americaville” paints a portrait of Jackson’s twin town through the eyes of a hopeful prospective resident, Annie Liu. She is the film’s perfect protagonist, Smith said: when he met her, she wanted to move to Jackson Hole, China to escape the stressors of the big city. She began her journey full of hope toward achieving some “American Dream.”

“She was hanging a lot of hopes on this place that it would deliver these abstract things that are hard to define like happiness, freedom, love,” Smith said.

And this is where the sister cities’ darker similarities, besides obvious architecture and sharing a name, begin to seep through the cracks. Like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Jackson Hole, China is regarded as somewhat of a wonderland. Most of its residents are second-homeowners. They buy houses to escape from the responsibilities and the pollution of the city. They’re all wealthy.

Annie Liu, the film’s protagonist, cutting roses outside her home. Photo: Adam James Smith

The self-appointed mayor Smith met? He’s actually the resident property manager. Jackson Hole, China’s economy is built on not only selling homes, but selling “lifestyles.”

“It’s like buying a membership to a lifestyle club,” Smith said.

There is, necessarily, a service sector in Jackson Hole, China. They do not live in the large, lavish homes inspired by what you might find in Teton Village. Instead, they live in dorm-like housing out of sight from the pay-to-play residents.

Liu moves to Jackson Hole, China with big dreams of an idyllic American lifestyle. But her dream is based on Hollywood — not reality. In Hollywood, “the protagonist gets what they want at the end.” In real life, dreams require more to be fulfilled than simply having dreamed them.

Smith technically debuted his film in California last week, but he’s most excited to show it here. At the very least, Smith hopes people leave with a better idea of how other parts of the world understand our “idyllic” town. At best, they might also understand the cultural and political climate in China that makes places like Jackson so attractive, and what it is about America that people are so quicky to idolize.

“It’s not just about Chinese people and their understanding of Jackson,” Smith said. “In many ways, it’s also about America and its impact on the world.”

See “Americaville” on The Center stage Friday, January 24 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at JHCenterForTheArts.org.

Learn more at AmericavilleFilm.comAmericavilleFilm.com

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