POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker?
Maria Poras: My motivation is to tell a story that will engage and entertain an audience. My inspiration is to explore and examine the unique landscape of one person’s hopes, fears and dreams. For me, filmmaking is a way to recognize and celebrate our shared human condition.
POV: Why did you choose documentary in this case?
Poras: I can’t imagine anything more exciting than real life. Since I was a child, I’ve looked at people and wondered, “What is she thinking? How did he get that way? Why are they together?” As a documentary filmmaker — I can just ask. And the miracle of it is that people are happy to share!
POV: What inspired you to make “Mai’s America”?
Poras: After a grueling ten month stint in NYC as an Apprentice Editor to Thelma Schoonmaker at Scorcese’s Cappa Productions, I was ready to get away and have my own adventure. I decided to visit a friend who was living in Hanoi, Vietnam and was enthralled with the country from the moment I stepped off the plane.
I think I was destined to meet an intriguing group of North Vietnamese high school exchange students who were preparing to study in the States. When I was their age, I went to France as a foreign exchange student, so I was able to connect with them on many levels. I became their American cultural studies teacher and saw that the idea of “America” had clearly captured their imagination. Their own fathers had won the war against America, the most powerful nation on earth. Rich in a coin that had no value, the students were planning to spend their senior year of high school there. I found myself wishing I could be a fly on the wall when they arrived, so I decided to become one.
But there were 23 of them and one of me. How to choose? I winnowed it down to 4. I filmed each of them in Hanoi for two months and then for a week each when they arrived in the States. One was placed with an Iranian woman in Washington state, one with a very religious Christian family in the Illinois farmlands, another on a Hopi Indian reservation with a Caucasian family, and of course, Mai.
And then I had a reality check: I was making my first film. I was funding it with the dwindling savings from the money I had earned in NY. There was just no way I could travel around the United States following all of them — I had to narrow the film down to one subject. I easily chose Mai because of how natural and comfortable she was in front of the camera, and because of her enchanting mixture of wisdom and innocence, bravery and humor. And I never looked back.
POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making “Mai’s America”?
Poras: When I kept my eyes and heart open to what was going on around me, let go of my expectations and stayed true to my instincts, magic would somehow appear before the camera. I was bowled over time and again that life can be so vibrant, so bland, so unpredictable and so profound; and how when you step away from it — it all makes sense.
POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
Poras: I’m too superstitious to talk about the new projects I’m exploring, but I can say that I want to continue telling stories like Mai’s — stories that capture the persistence of unburied history in our everyday lives.