Viewer Question: I have two questions for you. First I’d like to know if you were ever tempted to offer or to extend any personal help to Mai during the filming? Much of the time she appeared so alone and depressed I believe I would have made some attempt to help…and second, do you still have open contact with her?
Maria Poras: I grew very close to Mai over the 2 1/2 years that I documented her life. She is an independent, curious young woman who likes to find things out for herself. I didn’t suggest things she ought to do because I was interested in the choices she would make. I was always there as a cheerleader, for support — but I tried as hard as I could not to inform her judgment of things. For instance, after some time with her first host family, Mai told me that she wanted to change families but worried that she would bring a bad name to Vietnamese exchange students if she requested a different placement. I made it clear to her that she should feel free to change families if she wanted to. And then later on, when she decided to go to Detroit, she was deeply depressed. I couldn’t stand seeing her so sad, so I decided to stop filming and invited her to live with me in Boston until she figured out her next step — but luckily for the film, she followed her parents wishes and went to Detroit instead. I made three trips out to Detroit while she was there, and didn’t bring the camera on the first one because I just wanted to spend time with her and see how she was doing.
Yes, we’re still in close touch. We email often and talk on the phone as well… as far as giving advice — who knows what is best for someone else’s life? I have a full time job struggling to make the best decisions for my own life.
Viewer Question: I was curious how much your camera influenced Mai’s interaction with her peers? As awful as it sounds, would the “popular” girls in Mississippi have given her the time of day had you been absent?
Poras: I was always conscious of how the camera influenced the people I was filming. I was in high school myself once, and if I was getting anything that felt phony to me while filming, I shut off the camera. About the two high school girls — it’s possible that they were first attracted to Mai because of the film. But she became close with them a few months before I filmed them and they seemed to have developed a strong friendship. They clearly enjoyed each other and that’s what I went after. The girls stayed in touch with Mai after she left Mississippi.
Viewer Question: When did you do the voice interviews with Mai? Simultaneously as you filmed her? Or way after you filmed her?
Poras: I interviewed Mai all the time, every day when I was on location with her. For the narrative of the film I would ask questions like, “talk to me about why you’re going to New Orleans,” or, “you seem to be spending a lot of time with Latoya outside of the house — tell me about that.” I also asked many questions to get her deeper responses and thoughts to what she was going through at the time, such as, “You’re laughing a lot with your host family, but you don’t always seem happy, can you talk about this?”
As we started editing the film, I was concerned that in some of the early interviews I did with her, her grammar and pronunciation made it confusing to understand what she was saying, and I didn’t want there to be any barriers between Mai and her story, so I did re-records of some of her interviews in which I would have her repeat her own words more clearly.
Viewer Question: Where were Mai’s guidance counselors? How come they didn’t give her more help in choosing an American state school that her parents could afford?
Poras: To the best of my understanding, the exchange program she was on is not involved with college guidance, and she did have a college counselor at school. A few of her good friends had received full scholarships at private universities, and she thought she had a very good chance of receiving one as well. Also, Mai explained to me that state schools rarely offer financial aid to international students, that she would most likely have had to pay just as much for a state school as she would with a half-scholarship at Tulane. After she heard from Tulane and knew that it was her one option, she did apply to and was accepted into a community college, but she discussed the two possibilities with her parents and they decided that she should go to Tulane. She entered Tulane knowing that she would either have to get more scholarship money or transfer to a community college the following year.
Since the airing of the film, Tulane has been in touch with her to find out what happened while she was there and why no one at the University was able to help her find further scholarship money (which she did pursue). Also, a couple people have expressed an interest in helping fund Mai’s education when she returns to the States, which she would like to do for graduate school — she’s thrilled.
Viewer Question: How has the success of the film affected Mai? Did it come as a surprise? Do Mai and Chris stay in touch? Are there any plans for a follow-up film?
Poras: Mai is thrilled — and, yes, somewhat surprised — by the success of the film. She’s especially touched by the many people who have reached out to her in the past few weeks. I think that the broadcast and the attention she’s gotten around it have been a real high point for her.
She gave me what I think is the ultimate compliment after she watched the film with some of her friends, “I love how the film turned out, it’s so wonderful. And my friends said that it looks like a REAL movie!” Mai said that her relationship with Chris is her favorite part of the film. She and Chris are still close but not in touch because Chris doesn’t have email and phone calls to VN are prohibitively expensive.
No plans for a follow up film right now, although who knows what’ll happen down the road.
Viewer Question: Fascinating film! But… was it all real? As I viewed the program, I kept asking.. “is this real”…and… “how did she end up THERE?” Was this a documentary… or a film made to look like a documentary… or pieces of each?
Poras: It’s all for real! Which is why Mai was such an incredible subject for a film — so brave and bold, insightful, open-minded and unpredictable, and she always seems to surround herself with drama. Your reaction made me laugh because these unexpected things kept on happening while I was filming and I thought, “I’m in trouble, no one is going to believe this is really a documentary.” All I can say is that there was a lot of serendipity in motion while I was filming, which was both enthralling and heartbreaking for me to capture.
The exchange program that placed Mai brings over 500 kids annually from around the world. The students have little say about where they are placed. The exchange program decides in which state and with which host family the student will live. I initially filmed four Vietnamese girls (I chose them all before they knew where they were going in the States) and they were all placed in equally unique situations. One was with a Caucasian family on a Hopi Indian Reservation, one with a very religious Christian family in the Illinois farmland where she was one of the very few minorities at school, and another with an Iranian woman in Washington State. Their diverse introductions to the States made me think a great deal about how we define America.
Viewer Question: Hi, I was wondering when Mai’s America was filmed? It looks as if it was filmed in the mid to late 90’s.
Poras: Mai’s America was filmed from the summer of ’98 until the fall of ’00.