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Mai’s America, Marlo Poras’s documentary about an exchange student from Hanoi, will air on "POV" in August. Roxanne Bogucka spoke with the director after the festival.

RB: I saw Mai’s America at SXSW film festival recently, in Austin, Texas. And one of the first things I wondered was what came first–meeting Mai, or had you decided that you wanted to do a documentary about an exchange student’s experience in America?

MP: The idea to do the documentary came first. I had been living in Hanoi, Vietnam for a while, and met this group of exchange students with whom she came to the states. But the previous year and they send over a group of about 20 or 30 every year from Hanoi. And they had this really interesting attitude towards America. Because on the one hand, as Mai says in the film, they grew up very proud that their parents had fought for the North, for the Communists during the war against big America, and they had won against this superpower. So they had this sort of pride that bordered on cockiness towards the States, and at the same time they were in awe of all things American, like Hollywood movies and MTV and just general modernity of American life. So I thought that would be really interesting mix, starting point for a film. And so I spent about a year gaining access to these kids, getting the trust of the Vietnamese head of the program. And then I eventually became their teacher, and picked Mai out of the 22 students.

RB: So you spent that year, you were already in Hanoi?

MP: I was already in Hanoi. I was producing AIDS education videos for an NGO, a non-governmental organization over there.

RB: Okay. It’s interesting and it does come across in your film that they do have, Mai says very clearly that she’s proud of her Vietnamese heritage and of their struggle against the United States. I think one of the things that we, and this is probably real oversimplified, but I think one of the things we think about here is that Communist governments are all about providing for the people. And yet she seemed really surprised when she came here, when her first host family, they aren’t exactly employed, they have no visible means of support, even in this country that was supposedly fighting the North Vietnamese to keep communism at bay, what did she think about that?

MP: I think it was really a shock to her. I mean there are two different issues. One of the issues is just that there were people living this way in America, because she really did expect America to be like Hollywood movies. And just very glamorous and rich, and so I think on the one hand she was just very surprised to see poor people living here. But then she was also really impressed with the fact that people could get disability, that they could get money from the state. Her first host family, they were sort of surviving off of worker’s comp. And... sorry I’m spacing out a little bit here... and so... could you repeat the question?

RB: Sure, just that there are so many state-sponsored aid programs here, which one normally, well not normally, but which one often associates with a communist or socialist government, which is what we were fighting to keep at bay, supposedly in Vietnam, so I just wondered about how surprised she would be, what she would think about it.

MP: Yeah, and that was part of the reason why she really wanted to stay here. I don’t know if she kind of got the greater irony of it. Except she had grown up very privileged in Vietnam. She’s part of a very small, kind of upper class there, and so I don’t know, I mean she sort of had glimpses to the bigger problems of what was going on there. Like she was really disturbed by what she saw going on with street kids in Hanoi, which is in the film. So she had a sensitivity towards some of the problems, but she also lived in a very sheltered world there. But she definitely appreciated the social services here and that’s really part of why she wanted to stay here. Because she couldn’t believe how well taken care of people could be.

RB: So you started your project, before you even rolled film for Mai’s America, you started your project doing the relationship-building work for a year in Hanoi. So how long did you actually work on this project? When did you actually start? What year?

MP: I worked on it for four years. I’m horrible with years, so... it must have started in ’98?

RB: So by now Mai would be a young woman in her early twenties, then.

MP: Yeah, she’s 21 now.

RB: And have she or her host families and friends or any of these folks seen the film?

MP: Mai saw an older version of the film, a little over a year ago. And she had a wonderful response to it. She was really, really happy with it. Nobody else has seen the film yet. I just finished it about a month ago, so I’m actually just finishing up the sound mix. The actually picture was locked about a month ago. So I’m hoping to get it off to all of them over the next few months to see what they have to say also.

RB: That’s great. I’m glad that she had a good reaction to it, because I know the audience, at least at the screening where I was, had a wonderful reaction to Mai. She’s very candid and very speak-her-mind type of woman, and yet there were some times when she seemed, you know, things weren’t going well. She was despondent. Were there any times when she asked about maybe opting out of the filming?

MP: No never ever asked that. I actually think, what she has said to me is that the filming was the highlight of her time in the States. Because even though the film really shows the moments where she’s connecting with people, she had a lot of sort of lonely times by herself, both in Mississippi and at Tulane, actually. And so I think she really enjoyed being seen and being watched. We had a wonderful relationship so I think she enjoyed it when I was there, but more importantly she really enjoyed the validation of the camera. And she, there was really nothing that she... she was comfortable being filmed wherever, whenever. There weren’t any times when she said, "Oh I actually don’t want you to film this," or "I don’t feel comfortable with that." Which I would’ve respected. But she just really enjoyed the process.

RB: It seems, I didn’t actually get to the panel, but I know there was a panel discussion at SXSW about making documentaries during which Albert Maysles I’m sure I’m mispronouncing his last name–came out very strongly on the side of cinema verité. Said if you’re not doing that, you just ain’t. And I wondered, this is awfully open-ended but I wondered if you could talk a little bit about your feelings about cinema verité and the relationship-building that makes it possible.

MP: I went to another panel that Albert Maysles was on, and somebody asked him what his secret was, you know, how he was able to gain the trust of his subjects and how he was able to get the close relationships with his subjects. And he didn’t have an answer for them other than sort of an immediate trust that people had in him. About how he was filming someone on a bus, and didn’t ask the woman if he could film her, but they had this eye contact and the woman could tell, from the way he looked at her that he was trustworthy. At least that’s the sense that he got, and he went up afterwards to ask her permission. So he talked about that, just sort of coming from a place of sympathy and interest in the human condition. And that that, if you come from that place, it’s easy to build a good relationship with your subject. And that’s something that I really tried to do in the process of making this film. And most people were really comfortable right after meeting me. They were really comfortable with the idea of the film and of being filmed, and comfortable around me. I think part of what’s happening with verité now is that digital cameras are allowing the crews to become smaller and smaller. And I think part of the reason why I was able to gain so much access and intimacy with my subjects is that it was just me. I was the camerawoman and the soundwoman and everything. I was the only person who went on location. So I think that really also helped with access. And building relationships with the subjects in the film. I don’t know if that answers...

RB: No that’s actually very good. Thank you. When you do something like this, I mean they always tell you in science you know you’re supposed to get your hypothesis and do your experiment and you’re not supposed to have any preconceived idea of how the story is going to play out or how the experiment is going to turn out. But of course you do. Did you or Mai have any sort of advance expectations about how the story was likely to play out and were y’all surprised, or

MP: I was surprised over and over and over again. Which was ultimately the most exciting and challenging part of making this film. Because real life really can be so much stranger than fiction. With Mai, over and over and over again–I call them plotlines–people’s lives kept going in completely different directions that I would’ve expected them to.

RB: Chris/Christi comes to mind here.

MP: Definitely. Her relationship with her good friend who happens to be a transvestite, who, halfway through the filming decided that he wants to be straight and get married and have kids. And also in terms of the whole line of how she invited him to her prom and then later on decided that it wasn’t in her best interest to take him to the prom. All those kinds of decisions and changes were not expected at all. So the real challenge is trying to get enough coverage, or enough of an understanding of the people in the film so that, if those changes happen later on there’s sort of a base for them. It can make sense, after what’s happened. I think the biggest surprise for me was that, I expected the film to end with Mai really happy and settled at university in the States, finally having found the America that she wanted. And that’s what threw me for the biggest loop, I think. That she ended up not really fulfilling her dreams the way she had planned here.

RB: So in order to form that basis though, so that you have the background in case developments come along that are essential–you know, something comes along and now it’s essential that you have to have that background–what did that mean in terms of how many hours of footage you wound up shooting, or what your days were like?

MP: I shot a hell of a lot [laughs]. I mean actually it’s embarrassing, how much. I really shot all... I visited her about six times when she was in Mississippi. And then once in New Orleans and once in Detroit. And I would shoot as much as I could during that time, and I would interview her as much as I could. I have two huge transcription books that are just her interviews. And I think that was the biggest safety net I had. I was really just trying to cover every base along the way of what she was feeling about the different people in her life, and where she saw her future going. And yeah, so I really tried to cover my bases. I think there was actually 170 of footage, for a 70-minute film.

RB: Wow, but you know, somebody’s life here. And so I’m assuming you were your sound and camera person, and also your own editor?

MP: No.

RB: No?

MP: I worked with a wonderful editor on the project. And she worked just about through the end and then I edited, I sort of did the last portion of editing. But she was here for most of it and it was a great experience working with her. It’s great to be with someone after all that time alone.

RB: So how was Mai’s America funded?

MP: I sort of had a dream for funding. I was funded by ITVS (Independent Television Service).

RB: Ah!

MP: After about a year of shooting.

RB: So will we be seeing Mai’s America on PBS any time?

MP: Yes, it’ll be on "POV" on August 6th.

RB: Great. Well all right. So what’s your next project?

MP: Well actually I’m just finishing this up, sort of working 24/7 on this still. I’m not sure.

RB: I want to congratulate you again on Mai’s America, which won an audience award for best documentary at the recent SXSW film festival, and Marlo Poras, nice talking to you.

MP: Thank you so much. Nice talking to you.


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