The Foundation for a Meaningful Life Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2018
Documenting the Outsiders: Marlo Poras '86
by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
Documentary filmmaker Marlo Poras ’86 shares the perspectives of people whose stories often go untold.
It wasn’t until Marlo Poras ran away from home that she found her path as a documentary filmmaker.
At Fay, Dana Hall School, and Washington University in St. Louis, Marlo was fascinated with storytelling, balancing an academic interest in history with a passion for filmmaking. After graduation, she moved to New York City and landed an apprenticeship at Martin Scorsese’s Cappa Productions, where she worked on a variety of independent feature films, including Daytrippers and Grace of My Heart. “I was starting to make good money, and tempting job offers were coming in,” she recalls, “but my heart wasn’t in it.” The grueling career path of a feature film editor, with seven-day workweeks and all-nighters, filled her with dread, and she knew she had to get out. When a friend studying in Hanoi, Vietnam, invited Marlo to come stay with her, she seized the opportunity. “I ran away!” she laughs.
Marlo’s reaction to Vietnam was so profound that she stayed for two years. “Going from an extreme desk job to this vibrant, busy, exotic country was so stimulating,” she says. She picked up small jobs teaching English and yoga and produced some teen-oriented HIV/AIDS education videos for an NGO.
But wherever she went, the topic of the “American War” was inescapable. In school, Marlo had been taught that protests led to the U.S. pulling out of Vietnam. She had never thought of the war in terms of winners and losers. “Living in Hanoi was really eye-opening because the North Vietnamese were incredibly proud that this poor country of rice farmers had won this war against the American behemoth,” says Marlo. Her travels to the Mekong Delta were equally thought-provoking. “Middle-aged men would sit me down and ask whether Americans knew what had happened to South Vietnam after they left,” she recalls. The stories they told were of a people who felt abandoned by the U.S. as land was taken away and family members were sent to “re-education” camps. A complicated web of perspectives was emerging.
One of Marlo’s roommates was teaching a group of North Vietnamese students who were preparing to go on a high school exchange trip to the United States. Marlo found their mixture of Vietnamese pride and fascination with American culture intriguing. She bought a camera and decided to document their journey. The result was Marlo’s first documentary film: Mai’s Americais the tale of a fearless Vietnamese teenage girl who comes to the U.S. expecting Hollywood and instead lands among white Pentecostal and black Baptist families in rural Mississippi, challenging her ideas about America, Vietnam, and herself. Mai’s America won the Audience Award for Feature Documentary at South by Southwest and Best Feature Documentary from the International Documentary Association. It also aired on P.O.V., PBS’ award-winning non-fiction showcase.
Marlo’s next documentary project, Run Granny Run, was the story of Doris Haddock, a 90 year-old political neophyte who walked across America to protest the influence of big money in elections and then decided to run for U.S. Senate at age 94. Run Granny Run aired on HBO and won the Audience Award for Feature Documentary at South by Southwest and the Special Jury Award at the Woodstock International Film Festival.
Marlo followed that project with The Mosuo Sisters, a documentary tale of two sisters from a matrilineal ethnic population in China who lose their jobs during the economic downturn and the sacrifices that each makes to keep their family in the remote foothills of the Himalayas out of poverty.
Marlo is drawn to stories about outsiders, and she continues to mine that perspective as she looks for her next story to tell. While her work as a documentary film- maker may not have the burnout factor that she faced as a film editor, it can nonetheless be emotionally exhausting. She pours herself into each project as cine- matographer, producer, director, and marketing executive, and she shepherds each film from inception through distribution. She notes that she finds the transitions between telling stories a challenge sometimes. “It can take a little while between projects to build up that same intense fire of curiosity that will fuel the next project.”