INTERVIEW: Coming To America, With a Few Surprises; Marlo Poras on "Mai's America"
by Wendy Mitchell
(indieWIRE: 08.06.02) — What do you get when you cross a sheltered Vietnamese teenager with a bunch of self-described rednecks living in rural Mississippi? An eye-opening experience for anyone watching. With “Mai’s America,” first-time documentarian Marlo Poras trailed the vivacious Mai, a spoiled teenager from Hanoi who dreams of visiting the America she’s seen in Hollywood movies. Instead, Mai lands in rural Mississippi, where she lives with a family of depressed, unemployed locals, studies the Vietnam War with her new high school class, and befriends a transvestite coming to terms with his religious upbringing.
Poras shot more than 170 hours of DV footage for the film, which has drawn acclaim on the festival circuit and will air tonight (August 6th) as part of PBS‘s P.O.V. series. Throughout the film, Poras captures points high and low in the life of this captivating young woman — dancing at the prom in Mississippi, trying to tackle college in New Orleans, or working at a nail shop in Detroit. indieWIRE managing editor Wendy Mitchell spoke with Poras about truth being stranger than fiction.
indieWIRE: I wanted to start by asking about your background. What other film experience did you have before this?
Marlo Poras: I didn’t go to film school, I was a history major in college and had an epiphany near the end of school that I really wanted to get involved in film, specifically documentary film. So I moved to New York and ended up getting editing jobs, apprentice editing and assistant editing for feature film. And I really enjoyed it for a while and learned a ton, but then realized, I got into this for documentary film not feature film.
I had this plum of a job working for Thelma Schoonmaker, who is Martin Scorsese‘s editor, for about a year. And it was very exciting in so many ways, but it also really wore me out. And it made me realize this isn’t the world that I want to be in. One of my very good friends was living in Hanoi at the time, and said, “Why don’t you come here, and take a break, and get out into the world? ” I flew over there and was enthralled from the moment I got off the plane. I said, “OK, this is my opportunity, I’m gonna find something here and tell a unique story.” I ended up staying for two years, got a job producing AIDS education videos and met the exchange students through someone I knew.
iW: What was your interaction with the students like at first?
Poras: Before the students come to the States, they do a year-long intensive English and American studies class. And the first year I was there, my friend was their teacher and we would have them over for pizza parties and we would just answer their questions about the States, and they were so interested in me, because they had your stereotypical awe of the states, and MTV, and Hollywood movies. They also knew that the value of an education here would mean so much to them. But what was really unique about them in that mixture is that they were all North Vietnamese, all their parents had fought for the North in the war. As Mai says in the film, they all grew up very proud that their country of poor rice farmers was able to win the war against the most powerful nation in the world. And that seemed like a very interesting starting point.
iW: Was the Vietnam War an area of interest for you?
Poras: I’d always been very fascinated by it. I was born in an army base during the war, so it was always there. I had always wanted to go to Southeast Asia. When I got over there it was something that was a very big issue for me was trying to figure out how people feel about us.
I think that genuinely people were very open to me, and didn’t hold my nationality against me. But then there were things about the students that interested me, that I wasn’t able to get into the film necessarily; I was originally filming four girls, one of them, I went to her house, and I was filming her and she started yelling at her dog and she was saying, “Eat, John, eat,” and I said, “Wait a second, you call your dog John?!,” and she looked at me guilelessly and said, “Oh yes, most dogs have American names.”
iW: How did you choose Mai as the focus for the documentary?
Poras: I followed four girls around. One of them was placed with an Arabian woman in Washington state, another was placed with a religious Christian family in Illinois, another was placed with a Caucasian family on a Hopi Indian reservation. It was very hard to narrow it down, because each had such uniquely American experiences and stories. But as you can see in the film Mai just has this enchanting mixture of wisdom and innocence and bravery and humor, and was so comfortable in front of the camera, and enjoyed the process so much, it was a very natural decision to narrow it down to her.
iW: There are some surprising turns of events in this film — Mai befriending a drag queen in the deep South for instance. Was this film wildly different than what you thought you’d make?
Poras: I had no idea what I was going to make. That’s what I love about this kind of documentary film: life is so much more unexpected than fiction could ever be. I didn’t necessarily have expectations of what would happen, there were certain things. I hoped that her history class would study the Vietnam War, that much I could expect. What was so exciting was the unexpected stuff that kept happening, I thought “Wow, I never could have imagined this stuff in my wildest imagination.” It was thrilling to capture.
iW: Was that the first time you’ve shot on DV?
Poras: It was the first time I’ve really shot … It was real serendipity that the DV revolution hit right when I wanted to make this film, especially because it was so inconspicuous in Vietnam. You have to have government permission to officially film there, and I had this little touristy looking camera, and I was a young woman, so no one took me very seriously.
iW: I imagine that would be a real asset.
Poras: It was definitely an asset throughout all the filming, for traveling too — I made six trips while she was in Mississippi, and one in New Orleans and two in Detroit. But definitely, because it was just me down there on location, people were very comfortable. It was this little camera, a couple of microphones, no light. And so it was un-intimidating and natural for many of them.
iW: Did you ever feel conflicted because following Mai around with cameras probably hurt her chances of assimilating?
Poras: I didn’t worry about it, because it didn’t seem to be a problem for her. One of the reasons I didn’t choose one of the other girls was because she was uncomfortable having the camera at school, she didn’t like being singled out like that. But Mai loved it, she felt very validated by it. I think that she felt a lot of alienation in Mississippi, and she was used to being a very popular, very charming popular person in Vietnam, I think that she felt a void for a while. Things started to change over the course of the year, when she started making deeper relationships. But she never once asked me turn off the camera. That’s why she was such a perfect subject.
iW: Did you find it hard as a filmmaker to have to depend on your subject so much? You didn’t live in the same town, so you have to trust her to call you and tell you when the prom is and so forth.
Poras: I was in close contact with her all the time. It was a little bit difficult but it was more exciting and interesting to be just taken where she was going. I like following down the stream. We would be in touch all the time and I planned my trips around events that were going on in her life. Like when she said the history class is going to be covering Vietnam, I planned a trip for that. And other sort of events throughout the year, prom and when she changed her host family. That’s where things got a little bit difficult, when I wasn’t down there all the time. She didn’t call me until she had already switched her host family, and the filmmaker in me is asking, “Why didn’t you tell me to plan a trip!?”
iW: At the end when she was working at the nail shop and obviously depressed, how much did you want to step in and shake her and say “You’re smarter than this!”? Did you intervene in her life, or did you stay out of it?
Poras: Throughout the whole process I tried to stay out of it as much as I can. What I tried not to do was inform her judgment, but I was certainly there for her as much as she needed me to be there. I was a big cheerleader. Especially when things started getting tough in New Orleans, and her transition to Detroit. It became harder and harder for me to stay out of things. Because she was so depressed, we talked a lot then. She really needed somebody to help lift her up and get re-invigorated and re-inspired. So that was very difficult.
So at one point, I even invited her to come and live with me in Boston. And luckily for me as a filmmaker, she didn’t. It would’ve sucked to have her come here for the film, but as a human being, I had to ask her. I tried to talk her through it as much as I could, at the same time she really needed to have another out, so it was a fine line, and I was always aware of it and trying to be careful of it.
iW: As a first-time documentarian what do you think you learned?
Poras: I learned everything and more! I feel like my learning curve was pretty enormous. I had little idea of what I was doing when I started the film, and its very exciting to me when I watch the film because I can see my shooting and my storytelling getting better as the film goes along. I learned how hard it is do this kind of film on your own. And I want to work with some people next time around.
iW: What’s Mai doing now?
Poras: It’s been a roller coaster for her since she’s been back. It’s been pretty difficult at times. She’s going to an international university where all the classes are taught in English. She’s far above everybody else’s English level, so I think it makes her feel good. She’s teaching English. She said something very funny: “I’m teaching English, which makes me money, which is really great, and I have something which people really value, an American accent, but what they don’t realize is that it’s a Southern accent!”