Reel life
The Newport Film Festival's top documentaries
BY BILL RODRIGUEZ

'Mai's America'

Maude Chilton, programming director for the Newport International Film Festival, once summed up America's current fascination with documentary films as well as the prodigious number being turned out with this simple statement: "Everyone has a story to tell." Indeed, Chilton's comment continues to define the world of documentary filmmaking, though the stories that people tell are not just autobiographical ones.

For example: a writer, producer, or director may decide to bring a pop culture issue to the screen ("plus-size" women in Curve); to explore a local phenomenon (Native Americans selling fireworks in Washington State in Boomtown); to get behind a headline-grabbing murder case (the James Byrd killing in Two Towns of Jasper); or to do a mini-biography of an exchange student reacting to American culture (Mai's America). Or the filmmaker may, in fact, do a film about a family member (Lucia Small's My Father, the Genius) which indirectly tells a good portion of her personal story as well as his. This year's festival will have 10 documentaries in competition; the following five previews are mere snapshots of their subjects.

 

Mai's America
Wednesday, June 5, 8:30 p.m., Opera House 3
Sunday, June 9, 6 p.m.Opera House 3
Writer, producer, and director Marlo Poras found a treasure trove of material in the sojourn of North Vietnamese teenager and exchange student Mai in Meridian, Mississippi. The film opens with shots of Mai with her family, in her hometown of Hanoi ("My father drove a tank in the `American War' ") and then with her American "host parents," Don and Susan, neither of whom has a job and both of whom seem incredibly depressed. That depression tears at Mai's self-confidence, because she can't seem to make them feel happier no matter what she does.

Her respites from this gloomy team, which includes their teenager Kim, are the grandfather and grandmother of the family; an understanding and helpful history teacher; a sympathetic transvestite who becomes her first real friend in the States; and a couple of Vietnamese-American friends, who take her to Philadelphia, Mississippi, for a Vietnamese festival, scaring her by telling her about Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman as they drive into town. After six months with the first family, she finds a young African-American couple, Justin and LaToya, who take her in, and she makes friends with two of the "popular" girls at school.

All of these people in Mai's life become very real characters in Poras's film, fleshed out by multiple encounters and conversations. But the most real, of course, is Mai. With at least two years of shooting time, plus absolutely amazing editing, Poras makes something very challenging look quite seamless. It's as if Mai is narrating most of the film's scenes, as if she had worn a microphone while going about her daily life. Though it's not an uncommon technique, it's almost uncanny here, because Poras captures Mai's straight-ahead honesty about herself and her feelings and assembles the material in such a gripping narrative style. "I'm the kind of person who laughs a lot," says Mai, as we see her helping Susan with a household task. "I do it because I want to make the host family feel good. And sometimes it's when I don't feel comfortable."