By most accounts, filmmaker Marlo Poras had reached a pinnacle of success several years ago, albeit in the very circumscribed world of New York-based feature film editing. She had moved to New York to pursue her true calling, despite discouragement from concerned parents since they felt that filmmaking was not a viable career choice. She quickly shot up the ladder In a very short time, from someone doing "crap PA jobs," to working beside the top feature editors in Manhattan at the time. These days, she is on her way to completing her third feature documentary called The Mosuo Sisters. The project has received funding from Cinereach, The Jerome Foundation and The LEF Foundation, and was also recently named as one of the recipients of a 2010 Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund grant.
The Mosuo Sisters, which Poras is co-producing and co-directing with Yu Ying Wu Chou, is about two sisters from China's last remaining matriarchal society, the Mosuo, a very small ethnic minority of about 40,000 people. Working in Beijing, the two young women are caught up in the worldwide economic downturn that has hit China very hard, and lose their jobs. Jua Ma and La Tsuo head for home in a reverse exodus, just like millions of others who have come to the big cities to make their way and support families back home. Jua Ma and La Tsuo's home is a remote village in the foothills of the Himalayas. Having been exposed to the modern world, financial independence and the endless possibilities open to them, their views are irreparably changed in relation to their native traditions. The filmmakers have been following the sisters for close to two years as one gives up her education to stay on the farm and help their ailing mother, while the other heads back to the city to pursue her dreams and to try her luck as an entertainer. The story and cinematic scope of the project are a bit of a departure for Poras, director of Mai's America and Run, Granny, Run, both multiple award-winning films, the first broadcast as part of PBS' P.O.V. series in 2002, the second broadcasting on HBO in the fall of 2007.
Poras is an extremely likable, open and friendly person, a bit shy and quite modest considering her accomplishments. And she is full of excitement and passion when talking about the craft of documentary filmmaking. Born on a US army base in Kentucky during the Vietnam War, she graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in history. Soon after moving to New York, she became an assistant editor to Thelma Schoonmaker and went on to assist on several feature films.
She and I talked a few weeks ago on a glorious spring day, sitting on a park bench in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn amidst a plethora of dogs chasing balls, kids chasing dogs, and contented picnickers sprinkled everywhere under the cherry blossoms. With the relentless trill of a big ice cream truck parked right behind us, we talked about the perils of becoming successful (and boxed in) doing work that, ultimately, is not that meaningful, the trajectory of the career she always dreamed of having, and the joys and inspirations of mentoring young, precocious Brooklyn teens as they make their first films.
Still in Motion (SIM): This new project is quite a departure from anything you've done in the past. Even though, as in your other films, you're concentrating on a small-scale story, you're shooting in a culture and in a language not your own.
Marlo Poras (MP): Yes, that's right; I speak remedial Mandarin, at best.
SIM: Why this story? How did it come across your radar?
MP: I lived and worked in Vietnam for two years in the 90s, where I made a film about an exchange student from Hanoi who comes to the States to study.
MP: That's so nice to hear, thank you! During that experience, I was fascinated by the radical changes happening in Vietnam. I thought I was going to be able to work that into Mai's story, but the film ended up becoming more about America than Vietnam, which was disappointing to me in certain ways. When I lived in Vietnam, a friend who was working for an NGO in Hanoi helped me find work producing HIV/AIDS education videos for ethnic minority teenagers. Working on the videos, I witnessed first-hand the complicated issues ethnic minorities face as the modern world seeps into their everyday lives. The changes I saw happening in Vietnam were vast, but China has recently been going through a period of seismic change and I've been fascinated for years by how ethnic minorities are faring there. After completing Run, Granny, Run, I was itching to return to Asia, China in particular, to explore making a film. When I found out about the Mosuo, I was hooked, inspired by their matrilineal traditions, and by the fact that they think that the institution of marriage is an attack on the family. Their traditions are so unique and go against the grain of most mainstream societies, including China's, including ours. In a way, this film has been a return to some of the issues and themes I didn't get to explore in Mai's America.
MP: No, I didn't go to film school. I wanted to study film in high school but there weren't any classes or programs available then. Today, I look at these kids at Reel Works where I've been mentoring. I'm jealous of all these incredible video programs for young people out there now!
SIM: The Tribeca Film Institute just implemented a major program all over New York City to get cameras into kids' hands, especially at the high school level. They're getting to learn to express themselves and be heard in their own jargon, with their own distinct points of view.
MP: That's great to hear. Reel Works is exceptional because of the fantastic staff who provides a mentoring program using professionals in the field. The program gives structure and feedback in a way that I think the kids learn so much from.
SIM: The caliber of the mentors is pretty amazing, as well. You've got the superstars of the documentary world going in there and dedicating their time and attention with such enthusiasm and devotion. Lucky kids!
MP: Rodney [Evans] is doing such an impressive job. There was nothing even close when I was in high school. But I was always fascinated by film and spent all my free time watching movies. I wanted to pursue a career in film, but my parents talked me out of it. "Not realistic." "It's too competitive." They didn't want that for me. So I was a liberal arts student and studied history which is not really any more "realistic" in terms of making a living! I'm actually very, very glad that I did study history. I learned how to write and I learned how to research, how to listen, and those skills are invaluable. I moved to New York after college because in my last year, I started thinking a lot more about film. I had taken the one documentary class offered at the university which was tremendous and I had a wonderful teacher. So I had a bit of an academic introduction, at least, to film that made me realize that it was definitely what I wanted to pursue.
After moving to New York, I had a bunch of crap PA jobs, chopping strawberries into ten pieces each for very high-maintenance commercial directors. I started asking around about other possibilities and most people recommended that I learn a craft; I then could make a living at that craft while exploring ideas about my own films. I kept being drawn to the edit room. It might have been because that was the easiest transition from history and research and writing, story structure and things like that. I was fascinated by editing. People told me that if I wanted to do editing, it would be better for me to start in features, meaning it was easier to branch out from there to documentaries, to commercials, corporate work; it would give me more job options down the line. I was more interested in documentary but I heeded the advice given to me.
Like most people starting out, I had a pretty pathetic resume and wondered how the hell I was going to get a job. This was before the ease of the Internet and I, somehow, was able to find numbers and addresses of people and I would write to them or call them and offer to take them out for coffee. I can't quite fathom how that was all possible without the Internet, but I did it! I met mostly male editors in their 40s and 50s, all of whom hated directors and were very crotchety and tried to talk me out of it altogether. What did they know, all those old, unhappy men? But the one thing they did say that was useful was that I should visit The Brill Building and visit the different editing houses there, just walk around and meet people and give them my resume. I was so nervous, so beside myself. What did I have to offer? I knew nothing, had no experience. The night before I was planning on doing this, to go around knocking on doors, I didn't sleep at all. I was a total wreck with my stack of pathetic resumes. I get out at Times Square and I was, literally, shaking. I was walking down the street and that block, for some reason, was totally empty. No one was on the street. I looked up and Christopher Reeve was walking towards me. This was before his accident. He saw me and looked at me and smiled at me. And that smile coming from Christopher Reeve at that moment saved me. It thought, if Superman can do it, so can I! [laughing] A highly cheesy moment, but I got my first internship that afternoon.
SIM: And you learned on the job.
MP: Yes, and it was a great way to learn. Interestingly, I kept getting jobs that other people who I thought were much more qualified weren't getting.
SIM: And why do you think that was?
MP: I was told more than once by employers that my competition were all these 21-year-old, NYU film school grads who thought they were directors already. They came into the editing room with a lot of attitude, wanting to take direction from no one, least of all the director of the film. I was a sieve, taking everything in, learning really quickly, having absolutely no ego about any of it. It was such an amazing learning experience. And I learned to edit film. I prefer editing digitally, but I'm so glad that I had that exposure.
So I worked my way up and I finally got a job working under Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese's editor, which was pretty tremendous.
SIM: Yeah, I would say so!
MP: Yeah. It was within three or four years of starting. I got exactly where I wanted to be; it was incredible. I got into the editing union and everything. But after a year, I decided that I wanted out of fiction film; it wasn't the right place for me--all of the money, all of the egos, the serious workaholic syndrome, as in "no life." It really turned me off, the ways in which this very high end fiction film world operated. It's your whole world; you live and you breathe it all the time. It also involved one or two all-nighters every week, working six, seven days a week and it just made me ask myself if that was really what I wanted out of life. As an apprentice and assistant editor, I only worked on one film that I really loved, Daytrippers . I thought, in a lifetime, maybe I'd work on four or five films that I really believed in.
SIM: It's interesting that this happens to many people--one reaches a "pinnacle" of sorts in one's career and realizes that there needs to be more. Now what?
MP: It's a type-A kind of attribute, I think. You fixate on a goal and do all you can to get there, but in the process, you ignore the warning signs because you're all about the goal. Once you achieve it, you realize it's not the be all, end all; you want more out of life and then end up pushing in a different direction.
SIM: I don't know too many creative people that don't go through that on a regular basis. It's part of the deal. It's always a bit of a traumatic moment, no doubt, because you're looking into the void again; you feel like you're starting over from scratch.
MP: You want all that groundwork to pay off and mean something in the end.
SIM: In essence, it does, but never in the way in which you anticipate.
MP: Leaving the feature film world led me to documentary, so it did pay off. Luckily, the second editor that worked under Thelma was someone I became very close with and he saw something in me that was different from other people working there. James Kwei made it his cause over that year to talk me out of continuing in fiction film. He ended up leaving, as well. Jimmy had worked for Scorsese for twenty years or something like that, work most people would die for. He ended up becoming a veterinary assistant and he's so much happier. To this day, I'm so grateful to him. I appreciate and actually savor the work of talented feature film editors, but it wasn't the right place for me at the time.
So then I ran away to Vietnam, very confused, and thought I was getting out of filmmaking altogether. As I said, I'd always been fascinated by Asia. I was born on an army base during the Vietnam War and had a particular interest in that country. I thought I would go for a couple of weeks and ended up staying.
SIM: How did you meet Mai?
MP: Well, it was while I was there that these digital cameras came out for the first time, cameras that could shoot something that produced broadcast-quality material. So after about a year of trashing film and saying I was never going to work in the industry again, reading about the Sony VX1000 pulled me back in. I was in such a unique position in Hanoi, being exposed to North Vietnamese stories that no one was hearing about in the States. So I went and bought a camera. Right around that time, one of my roommates was teaching a group of exchange students from North Vietnam, all of whose parents had fought in the war against America. These kids had such a strange attitude towards the States. They were really cocky because they'd won the war. I, for one, had never really thought about that vantage point, despite having studied that time in history, thinking I knew every nuance of what went on. They did win that war against this behemoth of a country and had intense national pride about that. But they also had this stereotypical fascination with everything American--TV, Hollywood, all things Western. I just felt it was such a novel launching point for a project.
It took me a whole year just to get access to film the students. I chose four girls to follow over the summer in Vietnam and then I visited each of them when they got to the States. Luckily, David Sutherland, a wonderful documentary filmmaker, became my advisor. [Sutherland is also executive producing The Mosuo Sisters.] I really didn't know what I was doing. I was in over my head in terms of trying to figure out the storytelling aspects of all of it. It was also, economically, not feasible. It was overly ambitious to follow four characters. He sat me down and gently asked me all of the right questions and really pushed me in honing down the focus of the film. It was hard because all of the girls were living in such unique and unexpected places in America, even more unique than Mai's situation. There was one girl who was placed with this very angry Iranian woman in Oregon who thought that Monica Lewinsky was a Jewish-Israeli spy. Another girl was with one of the few Caucasian exchange families, but they lived on a Hopi Indian reservation. She was really racist towards all of the Native Americans when she first got there. Ethnic minorities are very looked down on in North Vietnam. Very complicated stuff. So it was actually very hard to narrow it down. But Mai was the most comfortable in front of the camera, a natural.
SIM: How in the world do these people qualify to accept an exchange student? In the film, there's a lot of discomfort that this girl is just not in the right place at all and it sounds like that was the case for most of these girls. These families seem inadequately prepared or equipped to take in a foreign exchange student! Were there any home visits at all? There's such a distinct lack of cultural sensitivity that it just seems like a recipe for disaster and puts these students in a very vulnerable place.
MP: I had a lot of problems with the agency that was placing these girls and I let them know it. That could have been a whole separate film about this exchange program and the state representative and the city representative that placed Mai. That whole backstory is like a Montel Williams show, really. But it made me think a lot about what America is and how we define America. None of the girls expected America to look like the communities in which they landed.
SIM: We get a sanitized and simplistic version of what this country is, as does the rest of the world. In your films, you have a talent for capturing these unexpected slices of life that are America, whether we want to acknowledge that or not. You capture that in Run, Granny, Run, as well.
MP: I do shy away from stereotypes but when you film people--well, you just never know what to expect. It's always surprising. The lived life I've filmed is never anything I could have come up with on my own. It's a thrill when things expose themselves that way, all of the complexity and strangeness. Once I started filming these girls, once I started filming Mai, I was totally hooked.
SIM: Talk a bit about your relationship with her, your first documentary subject? It was very much a collaboration since she gave you so much.
MP: We did collaborate a lot and I would tell her what I was after. We had very long conversations to try to figure out what she was thinking. Sometimes things would be murky for her and when she could find a way to articulate things from her own unique perspective, it was very exciting. She enjoyed the process. She was very alone there and so she loved being seen by the camera. Growing up, she was always a bit of a shining star. She appreciated being seen in a place where she was kind of invisible.
SIM: Your treatment of her sexuality, and that topic in the film in general, is treated with a great deal of nuance. It's never something that's discussed really overtly. Her friendship with Chris / Christy is so fascinating, and then he does this 180 turn that's very bittersweet, both for her and for the audience. You're right; you could not have written that.
MP: It did turn out to be such rich material and it was completely serendipitous. The treatment of those identity issues was oblique because it was what it was. Mai was interesting because I don't think she really ever played around with her sexuality. She's pretty straight, although I think when she was in Mississippi, she felt so asexual because nobody was interested in her. I was shocked when she shaved her head. But in certain parts of Asia, that became a trend for young girls to do that, sort of a reaction against the typical hyper-feminization that's part of the culture. I think she found it inspiring that people here in the States played with those defined roles. In that way, meeting Christy was very liberating for her. I think she also connected with him deeply because, as a transvestite in the rural South, he was another outsider. It was clear that many people in Mississippi didn't think that Mai was fully human so she connected a lot with him about that. It was as shocking to anyone as it was to me when he "straightened" out and returned to the church as a heterosexual man.
SIM: I actually found that incredibly sad. My heart sank a bit. And there was a part of it that seemed contrived on his part, even though you realize it really is a genuine desire to fit in and go back to what's familiar and comfortable, I guess.
MP: The rural South can be so vibrant and surprisingly diverse, but it can also be very oppressive. The gay bar where he performed was hidden down a long, narrow country road. Chris' life was very dangerous. Growing up, he loved being a part of the church, being part of the community, and it was crushing for him to have to leave that behind when he came out. He wanted to be "normal," to fit in again. I think his family was pushing him a lot, as well. He loved his family, was a total mama's boy. He lived with his parents but had moved out while we were filming. I think he was so happy to be back in the church, happy to be part of that community again. But that only lasted for about eight months. The last time I talked to him, he was living in New Orleans and he told me that he had found someone there to sponsor a sex change operation. His story could have been a whole separate film.
SIM: For your first film, landing a P.O.V. slot was awesome--a promising start to your career as a documentary filmmaker.
MP: It was amazing. David Sutherland also helped me along so much. It got funded by ITVS which was extraordinary, to have that kind of faith in me for my first film. I'm still very grateful for that. It got a national broadcast, won some awards. More than anything, it was my own self-styled film school and I was happy enough with it as just that. So for it to actually have legs and the kind of life that it had was extremely gratifying.
SIM: So you could call yourself a filmmaker after that--when did that realization hit you since this was a new transition?
MP: I think it hit me while I was making Mai's America. I was going full throttle, living it and breathing it and spending twenty four hours a day doing it. I put my life on hold for the film. By the end of it, I knew I had to pursue a career as a documentary filmmaker. It's what I had been wanting to do all along. Having said that, there are moments when it does feel absurd, times when I completely lose confidence and feel like I don't know what I'm doing. My lack of formal training catches up with me and I feel like a hack. And yet, at other times, I feel very much like an increasingly experienced filmmaker.
SIM: Going into your second film, what was your mindset? Did it feel like starting from scratch?
MP: Each film experience is so different. The main part of Run, Granny, Run was shot over the course of four months. I was on location with Doris and the campaign ninety percent of the time. It was a very transporting experience. I hadn't done that before. When I would film Mai, I would visit her depending on what was happening in her life, usually for four days to two weeks at a time.
With Doris, I loved being completely subsumed in what was happening in a concentrated way. It was a world I never thought I would have penetrated and it was very surreal. She and her campaign workers were living hard, pursuing a dream they were so deeply passionate about.
SIM: Did a close bond form between the two of you right away?
MP: I adored her right away and she was incredibly warm with me, but it took a little while for her son, Jim, and her closest advisor, Dennis, to trust me. A lot of people had approached her wanting to do a documentary piece on her. They had dealt with a lot of well-intentioned but slightly flaky people who would talk a good game but rarely came through in any substantive way. They were warm and welcoming, but I didn't necessarily get the access I wanted right away. Whenever they'd have an argument or Doris would lose her temper, Dennis would put his hand up in front of the camera and ask me to stop filming. Everyone around her was very protective. They didn't know what my intentions were--for all they knew, I was planning to do some kind of Granny smackdown [laughing].
Doris was 94-years-old and had dealt with the media for a long time, so was often on autopilot. I wanted to do something a little bit different than what she normally gave the media. She was a really dynamic, incredible woman, but after dealing with the media for that long, it was just very hard for her not to talk in sound bytes, and I was media, even though I didn't think of myself that way. I didn't know if I was going to be able to get under her skin in a different way. There's a scene in the film where she was going for one of her first morning walks back in New Hampshire. Dennis was going over issues with her while she was walking, training for a bigger walk. She'd been on the road in a van for about a year so she wasn't in the best physical shape and her emphysema was kicking in that day. She was exhausted and he was pushing her on the issues and she lost her temper and snapped. But he didn't put his hand up in front of the camera that time. He trusted me from that point on, trusted that it would be a balanced piece.
I told them that I wasn't interested in hagiography. What Doris did was so extraordinary, walking across the country at ninety, becoming the Democratic nominee to the US Senate at ninety-four. Her feats felt almost super-human. But I knew she fought hard to achieve those things. She fought the liabilities of old age, the doubts of nay-sayers. She fought the weather; she fought death. I wanted to show her for the human being that she was. I wanted to show that she did have moments of suffering and things were difficult for her sometimes, she did lose her temper and she did get exhausted and overwhelmed. And yet, in spite of all these things, she was still able to live harder and accomplish more in her 90s than most of us do in a lifetime. I wanted the film to show her trajectory, how her flinty determination to get through those challenges she faced often led her to accomplish exceptional things. To me, those human moments, those struggles, made her achievements more heroic, and also more accessible. [Doris "Granny D" Haddock died at the age of 100 at her home in Dublin, New Hampshire in March of this year. Poras wrote a wonderful tribute to her on AOLNews.com. You can read it here.]
SIM: Well, that access, especially to a subject like that, should be hard-won. I think that's the real secret to a successful nonfiction filmmaker, really, because that's what you need, that trusted relationship and collaboration with your subjects to really tell a substantive story. It's not something that can be faked. You wait for those magical moments and hope they keep coming to make a whole film.
MP: Oh yeah, those moments are like crack. But being able to build them together and create something that's layered, that has highs and lows, that's what does justice to the person you're documenting. I see a lot of documentary portraits that are quite one-dimensional.
SIM: What we're talking about is actually making me think of your work with Illeen, your Reel Works mentee. With your help, she was able to create a piece where you can see how that kind of stuff can resonate so strongly. I know a bit about what her original intention or idea was but this was something quite raw and, as you say, layered. And it does have those strung together moments where she's getting these genuine reactions. Not to mention the fact that it's ultra-personal; she took a big risk in so many ways, with camera in hand.
MP: Yes, her film is raw and she was very brave in making it. She is amazing. She had had her heart broken by this guy and sometimes she would feel victimized and get angry about him, thought he was a real asshole and would swear at his face on the screen while we were editing. But she was touched that he agreed to be filmed and she really didn't want him to come off negatively in the piece. She wanted him to be able to see the film and still want to be friends with her. Impressive for a 17-year-old who'd had her heart broken! She wasn't really interested in making a revenge piece. Her film was much more complicated and more about what it means to be in love and to then go through hard times with somebody, to give and take, and how we hopefully learn about ourselves in the process.
SIM: Would you ever think about doing something so personal like that?
MP: When I was younger, I very much wanted to do a film on my grandmother who had survived Nazi-occupied Germany. I was just out of college and experimenting with a high-8 camera. She had a hard edge to her, a unique personality. She'd been through hell and back and had some amazing stories. But whenever I would try to interview her, she would say [affecting a thick German accent]: "Oh, that was a very hard time, very difficult. I don't have anything to say about it! I don't want to talk about it!" I kept at her for a while, but she always answered the same way. So I scrapped the film idea because I didn't think I could get anything interesting out of her. Now, I think I could do something dynamic with that kind of material, with her insistence on not talking about tough times, on burying the past, but back then, I had no clue how to work with it. Otherwise, I doubt I'd ever do a personal film; I'm too interested in other people's stories.
SIM: Let's circle back to this project you're working on now, The Mosuo Sisters. Where do things stand now? You're almost done shooting, correct?
MP: We are. We've been filming Jua Ma and her younger sister, La Tsuo, and their family for the past year and a half. The process has been much like my other films in that I could not have anticipated the unlikely twists and turns the sisters' lives have taken while we were filming. It's been far more telling than what I initially thought might happen. When Yu Ying and I began filming the sisters, we had no idea that the bar they worked in would soon close leaving them out of work just as the global financial crisis was hitting China. It's been a pivotal year in both their lives, with almost too many dramatic threads to include in the final cut.
Otherwise, we're continuing to fundraise for each stage which is always difficult. I really admire those filmmakers who can raise money with relative ease. That's one of my next goals is to figure out how the heck to do that. Everybody's trying to figure that out, I suppose. I started this project using my own funds from money I had made on the DVD sales for Run, Granny, Run. That was my start-up money. It seems like part of the investment you have to make.
SIM: It also makes you a self-sustaining artist and that's a huge accomplishment, to use money you've earned from other projects to keep yourself going. It's a good business model and should be very satisfying, actually.
MP: I was very happy I was able to do that. It's just that it's particularly hard with the kinds of stories I tell because I never know where they're going to go at the beginning. I can't go to a broadcaster or a funder and say that these are the themes I'm interested in exploring and this is the person through which I'll explore them. Every time I've made a film, it ended up going somewhere radically different than where I thought it would in the beginning. To me, as a filmmaker, that's tremendously fulfilling, but I think for funders it's nerve-wracking. It's a little bit easier for filmmakers who are doing more issue-related films or historical films, something with a definitive story arc from the beginning.
Also, the translations for what we've been shooting have taken a long time. The sisters speak Mandarin when they're with Chinese people, but when they're with one another or their family, they speak Mosuo which is a language only about 40,000 people speak. We've finally found the right person for the translation job who is meticulous and has that high level of skill to find the nuances in what they're saying.
SIM: Your co-director, Yu Ying Wu Chou, is Taiwanese. This is the first time you've had that kind of relationship, sharing that directorial role. Why did the collaboration take that form?
MP: The language had a lot to do with it. She's a native Mandarin speaker and with this kind of film, relationships and gaining trust is fifty percent of the filmmaking. So that's what she's doing; she is the relationship with the sisters, both when we're filming and when we're not. She talks to them regularly. It's all about trust and communication. She's so trustworthy and has such a beautiful relationship with them and the family. She works mainly as an editor. It's her first time as a filmmaker.
SIM: Another filmmaker would not have necessarily made her a co-director or would even consider that. She would garner more of a producer role, perhaps. That's why I asked that question.
MP: Well, as I said, I really do feel like the relationship with the subjects is half of it for this kind of film since without that collaboration, you really don't have much of anything. I don't know, is that a producer's role, is that a director's role? All those roles feel fluid for me. She was going out on a limb as much as I was, including financially since she put some of her own money into it in the beginning. I felt like sharing the director credit was fair. In terms of the actual nuts and bolts directing, that's my job. But she has a very solid sense of character development and brings good ideas to the table in that regard. She's getting better and better as we go along, having more vision in that way. It's a constantly-evolving partnership.
SIM: The footage I've had an opportunity to see is really, really beautiful.
MP: It is. I've always shot all my own stuff, more out of financial necessity than anything. I just never had the money to work with a DP. And, I must say, I do really enjoy shooting. But my shooting is solid, not elegant. I'm able run around after people and capture important, unexpected moments, but I never felt like my images had tremendous artistry. When we met these women and spent some time with them and decided that they would be in the film, we immersed ourselves in the bar and their world. I just felt like there was no way I could have done it justice cinematically all on my own. It's such a visual story, much more so than anything I've done before.
We had met this cameraman, Al Go, who works in Beijing for BBC China. I had seen his images and he was eager to expand his shooting horizons and work on something a bit different than the news pieces he normally does. I had seen his work, which is often exquisite. He shot and co-produced a BBC mini-series called "White Horse Village" and after seeing that, I thought I'd be lucky to have him on board. He's only able to join us, however, when he has time so I'm still doing most of the shooting. I've learned a tremendous amount from him about composition, depth of field and light. His work has really upped my game, made my shooting skills stronger. I can do justice to the sisters' world, capture the visual complexity that's necessary for that.
SIM: I think, as a director, it also helps you to understand the context of certain things you otherwise would not be able to given that you don't speak the language; this is a culture radically different from your own. What are your expectations for this film?
MP: My hope is that it will have national and international broadcasts and a solid festival run.
SIM: And theatrically? It's a very cinematic piece. I would love to see it on a big screen. But, then again, I'm a huge proponent of cinematic nonfiction and think there should be more of it, as financially unrewarding as hell it may be. I was just wondering if you perceive this piece differently in that way from your other work.
MP: I think about that, I do. It would be wonderful. It's just that it's hard to imagine that. It feels like the theatrical world is just continuing to fall apart. I guess I've always felt a bit ambivalent about theatrical for this kind of film, an independent documentary, because it has such a small potential release, a handful of people in New York and Los Angeles would be interested in seeing this exhibited that way, maybe a couple of other cities. The amount of work and the financial loss is significant to say the least, and I'm always exhausted at the end of a film, deeply, deeply exhausted. But power to those people who decide to get their films in theaters, for people who fight hard to get their theatrical exhibition. I don't mean to demean it at all; I'm actually in awe of someone accomplishing that. It's interesting that so many films out of China have been making me feel that theatrical can be a possibility for this one. Up the Yangtze [directed by Yung Chang] and Last Train Home [directed by Lixin Fan] are incredibly fantastic cinematic experiences. Those films are just powerhouses. Damn them for raising the bar so high! Really inspiring.
SIM: That challenge can be worth it, you never know. A lot depends on opportunities and the right champions with the right resources to help you realize that. Tempering expectations is probably the best tactic at the end of the day. What other work have you seen in the recent past that's inspired you artistically, that might inform the way in which you do future work, especially with portraiture in film?
MP: There are specific films that I've seen that have totally transformed the way I think about making documentary. [Pernille Rose Grønkjaer's] The Monastery rocked my world.
SIM: Mine, as well! I love that film so much; it's extraordinary and so is its maker. I did a wonderful interview with her in May of 2007. [It's on this very blog right here!] That is one of those films that totally transcends genre--I don't care what people want to call it, it's a magnificent piece of filmmaking. I can't wait to see what she does next. She dedicated almost a decade of her life to that film. An extraordinary collaboration between director and subjects.
MP: She's one of those creative behemoths, someone that has that agility to figure out the story in a situation like that and add that level of visual poetry to it in her shooting. It took my breath away. I was at IDFA watching it and I was sitting directly behind her. I leaned forward and hugged her halfway through the film! I was so overjoyed. Here in the States, there's such a tendency towards socially conscious-driven, activist filmmaking, a lot of which I respect. But it's not necessarily what drives me. To see her exploring a story that's so deceptively simple, that was not issue-driven and yet speaks to the human condition in such a profound way was so, so inspiring.
SIM: When did you start working on The Mosuo Sisters?
MP: Including pre-production, almost exactly two years ago.
SIM: So you're looking at probably another year to finish? Three years for a big project like this is quite efficient, actually.
MP: Sometimes it seems like a hell of a long time, but three years does seem reasonable.
SIM: Are there other stories or subjects out there that have grabbed your attention, that are occupying your mind?
MP: The stories I want to tell are always character-driven so it comes together when I meet that person, or persons. There are a couple of subjects I'm currently interested in, but we'll see where it goes. It's like falling in love--things have to click a certain way, and I'm picky.
The important thing is to keep exploring ideas. But I do want to do something closer to home next time. Traveling great distances, going back and forth is exhausting. It's thrilling, as well, but we've made eight trips to China in two years. Just the idea of doing something in New York is so titillating. There are so many amazing stories here and just to be able to take the subway or a taxi to a shoot would be the lap of luxury!