Mais America, Marlo Porass documentary
about an exchange student from Hanoi, will air on "POV"
in August. Roxanne Bogucka spoke with the director after the
RB: I saw Mais America at SXSW film festival
recently, in Austin, Texas. And one of the first things I
wondered was what came firstmeeting Mai, or had
you decided that you wanted to do a documentary about an exchange
students 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. Its interesting and it does come across
in your film that they do have, Mai says very clearly that
shes 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 arent 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
workers comp. And... sorry Im 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 dont know if she kind
of got the greater irony of it. Except she had grown up very
privileged in Vietnam. Shes part of a very small, kind
of upper class there, and so I dont 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 thats really
part of why she wanted to stay here. Because she couldnt
believe how well taken care of people could be.
RB: So you started your project, before you even rolled
film for Mais 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. Im horrible
with years, so... it must have started in 98?
RB: So by now Mai would be a young woman in her early
MP: Yeah, shes 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 Im
actually just finishing up the sound mix. The actually picture
was locked about a month ago. So Im hoping to get it
off to all of them over the next few months to see what they
have to say also.
RB: Thats great. Im 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. Shes very candid and very speak-her-mind type of
woman, and yet there were some times when she seemed, you
know, things werent 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 shes 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 werent any times when
she said, "Oh I actually dont want you to film
this," or "I dont feel comfortable with that."
Which I wouldve respected. But she just really enjoyed
RB: It seems, I didnt actually get to the panel,
but I know there was a panel discussion at SXSW about making
documentaries during which Albert Maysles
Im sure Im mispronouncing his last namecame
out very strongly on the side of cinema verité. Said
if youre not doing that, you just aint. 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 thats 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, its easy to build a good relationship
with your subject. And thats 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 whats
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 dont know if that answers...
RB: No thats actually very good. Thank you.
When you do something like this, I mean they always tell you
in science you know youre supposed to get your hypothesis
and do your experiment and youre 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 yall
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 againI
call them plotlinespeoples lives kept going in
completely different directions that I wouldve expected
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 wasnt 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 theres sort of
a base for them. It can make sense, after whats 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 thats 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 essentialyou know, something comes along and now
its essential that you have to have that backgroundwhat
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
its 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, somebodys life here.
And so Im assuming you were your sound and camera person,
and also your own editor?
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. Its great to be with someone after all that time
RB: So how was Mais America funded?
MP: I sort of had a dream for funding. I was funded
by ITVS (Independent Television Service).
MP: After about a year of shooting.
RB: So will we be seeing Mais America
on PBS any time?
MP: Yes, itll be on "POV" on August
RB: Great. Well all right. So whats your next
MP: Well actually Im just finishing this up,
sort of working 24/7 on this still. Im not sure.
RB: I want to congratulate you again on Mais
America, which won an audience award for best documentary
at the recent SXSW film festival, and Marlo Poras, nice talking
MP: Thank you so much. Nice talking to you.