From China to rural Oregon, cultures come together in “Welcome to Unity”

Hilarity ensues when seven foreign exchange students move to a tiny rural town and join the football team to make friends with the locals.

It may sound like the script for the next Will Ferrell or Sacha Baron Cohen film. But it’s actually the true story of “Welcome to Unity,” a documentary screening around the Northwest this weekend.

After seeing a report by NPR’s Tom Goldman on Burnt River High School’s eight-man football team in 2009, Director Katie Mahalic and Cinematographer Anu Rana set out to Unity, a town of roughly 100 people in eastern Oregon, to film a short feature on the small town team.

But once they arrived they realized they had a bigger story on their hands. With help from Burnt River H.S. teacher Kerri Latshow, the filmmakers provided the students with hand-held cameras, and asked them to film themselves, reality TV style, throughout the 2009-2010 school year, capturing the experience of Chinese and Central Asian kids adapting to life in small town America.

The film just launched a Kickstarter campaign last week, hoping to raise money for final post production, and so they can travel during film festival season in the summer and fall. The campaign will last 48 days and Mahalic and Producer Pete Ryan hope to raise $30,000 dollars during that time.

“We have very little advanced funding,” Ryan said. “Kickstarter will be our primary focus and we will reach out to our core audience.”

The film returned to Unity for its first screening on Friday, plays across the border in Walla Walla on Saturday, and returns to Portland on Sunday.

Exchange students try their hands at American football (with mixed results) in a still from "Welcome to Unity"
Exchange students try their hands at American football (with mixed results) in a still from “Welcome to Unity”

Using the parties involved in the film, “Welcome to Unity” hopes to spread the word about the campaign by reaching out to friends and family and building from there.

“It’s all about awareness,” Ryan said on running a successful Kickstarter campaign. “Kickstarter campaigns live and die on awareness.”

Ryan and Mahalic also plan on showing private screenings in different cities throughout the country, including a screening promised in Seattle sometime in June.

While the story of “Welcome to Unity” might sound unlikely, the message of the film is familiar.

“Everyone involved built strong emotional connections and the formation of the (football) team really brought everyone together,” Ryan said. “We do come from different cultures, but that doesn’t have to divide us.”

Check out Welcome to Untiy’s website and Facebook page for updates on upcoming screens and follow the Kickstarter campaign.