Times Staff Writer

In the minds of most Americans, China seems an almost unattainable destination. But Thomas Feierabend wanted to go there. Seeing China, talking to its people, had been a dream for Feierabend. He also dreamed of being a film maker. For Feierabend, to merge these dreams was like somehow attaining the unattainable.

“An Opening Door: English Teachers in the Land of Mao” is the start of Feierabend’s dream. It is, however, a video, not a film. It is also unfinished. Feierabend hopes to take the footage he has, show it to prospective donors like those from the National Endowment for the Arts and win grant money.

Then he’ll return to China’s Hunan Province to complete the documentary. If all of the pieces fall into place--if Feierabend’s luck has a domino effect--he’ll have a work he can show in theaters and possibly on public television.

Feierabend, 28, grew up in Del Mar and graduated from Torrey Pines High School. His father, Ivo Feierabend, who fled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia after World War II, is a professor at San Diego State University.


Thomas specialized in film in high school and at Deep Springs College in California before obtaining a degree from New York University.

In New York, he met Rebecca Karl, who had lived and studied in the Soviet Union before graduating from Barnard College with a degree in Russian language and literature. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turned her away from the Soviet Union. She later became an English teacher at the Hunan Pedagogical Institute.

Now she’s collaborating with Feierabend on “An Opening Door.” When he went to Changsha, the capital of Hunan, in November, 1985, she was his invaluable aide. She spoke the language; he does not. She arranged for interviews with high officials, who respected and trusted her ability. She engineered much of the paper-work-slashing measures that might have daunted less-fortunate film makers. The Feierabend-Karl film is the first American footage taken in Hunan.

The focus of the video is the Chinese government’s effort to make education compulsory, at least in grades one through nine. Much of China’s billion-plus population remains uneducated. The goal of the government is to change that as quickly as possible. The goal causes, conflict, much of it with teachers, interviewed insightfully and with great sensitivity, by Karl and Feierabend.


Part of what makes the project compelling is that the people interviewed all speak English. This differs from the Chinese interviewed in the acclaimed BBC production, “Heart of the Dragon,” shown recently in this country on PBS.

Feierabend is a fan of “Heart of the Dragon.” He doesn’t believe its wide showing will hurt “An Opening Door.” Feierabend believes “Heart of the Dragon” has piqued curiosity in China, opening the door to other film makers.

“My feeling is that ‘Heart of the Dragon’ laid the groundwork,” he said. Ours is the first film with Chinese people speaking English. With ‘Heart of the Dragon’ you were watching. With our film, you’ll be sharing.”

Feierabend sees his work “capturing a moment in Chinese development. It raises contradictions. The country can go one way or the other.”


The opening moments of “An Opening Door” are scenes of rural Hunan, farmers hoeing, children playing, chickens clucking at their feet. Moments later, the camera ventures inside a classroom, where students are listening to a tape of “This Land Is Your Land.”

The conversation begins as students at Hunan Pedagogical Institute--teachers learning English, honing skills for the equivalent of a college degree--are chatting about the future. They fear their personal aspirations may not conform to government plans.

The government wants them to be teachers in middle schools, the Chinese equivalent of high school. But some of them want more than that. They see the world as a larger place than the confines of a middle school.

One of them had spent time in America and his head had been turned. He is among the best and brightest of China’s youth. Why should he while away in middle school when he could be a diplomat, an emissary, a traveler? He wants what’s best for his country; why sacrifice dreams for a nebulous goal?


“I still like teaching,” he said. “But if I have an opportunity to better myself, I will try.”

Such an opportunity could come in taking an entrance exam to graduate school. From there, he might become a diplomat. The problem is, hundreds like him have the same fantasy.

He knows he may have to teach. “My superiors don’t want me to do anything else,” he said.

“The income (for being a teacher) is not good,” another young man says. “That’s the reason most of us are not happy. I don’t dislike being a teacher, but if the opportunity comes along to better myself, I may just try.”


Feierabend sees the video, and any eventual film, as a microcosm of a fascinating China that remains 80% rural. The struggle to educate, and to change, is fiercest in the countryside.

He hopes his camera can help show the world how fierce, and to take away some of the wall that separates us from them.