Big Dream: Ji’s Story

Everyone has a past, often filled with landmines. Somehow, we appear to come out of it unscathed, as if the Reaper never grazed us with his scythe. In our careers and daily lives, we operate normally. Although I rarely dwell on the past, it’s important to share my journey.

My grandparents fled to Laos and lived in diaspora during the Vietnam War. In Laos, my Vietnamese parents met and fell in love. I was born in the city of Vientiane, hardly a city by first world standards. My city had dirt roads that ran in front of our house. We lived next door to a popular Buddhist temple dedicated to the Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion. The flow of energy from that temple would later shape my mission in life—in service to the female agenda.

As refugees of war, my parents fled Laos through treacherous terrain, separated. My mother, with three little girls and one baby boy, was smuggled onto a small boat to cross the Mekong river during a torrential storm. Fleeing by foot, we met my father in Thailand, who escaped to reunite with us later.

We eventually arrived in America with nothing, only a few photographs my mother took with her. I grew up in the housing projects of Denver, Colorado, in a long period of darkness, facing racial hatred within a hostile and violent community, combined with homophobia by the predominant right-wing conservative values of the period. It was a future-less prospect.

My mom and dad had no formal education and didn’t know a word of English. Somehow, they worked their way out of poverty and put four kids through college.

There is rich history in my heritage, one which I will never know. Before leaving Laos, my parents visited the Vietnam Embassy to get our visa to immigrate to France. The entire building was bombed that fateful day—the documents were destroyed by fire. All my relatives had attained their visas to flee to France. My immediate family was cut off from the herd.

As destiny would prevail, my immediate family would be a six-person unit, alone in America. We had no tribe, and for years, I lamented our so-called demise. But today, I see we are fortunate, for this has granted me freedom not to conform to any social standards or pressures. All possible influences to suppress my personality and therefore shape my artistic expression were cast off by a misfortune, which with greater perspective was a blessing in disguise.

My artistic path started with watching my father doodle at his desk. I am my father’s daughter: a lone wolf, misanthrope, too real to conform, resilient, and tragic black sheep—trying to unravel myself from the wool.

When I was a child, I copied everything my father did. When he spent hours taking apart clock radios and gadgets to put them back together, I sat next to him and pretended to do the same. His creative, meditative mind was like the Dalai Lama, spending hours fixing the inner guts of a wristwatch. If my dad were not so emotionally dark, he would have been a monk. My creative, melancholic saintliness, dire call for truth in everything—comes from my father, a refugee who lost his family to the Vietnam War—who rejected all surviving relatives—determined to live alone as if in non-existence.

My dad loved to draw eyeballs, so I drew eyeballs. I kept drawing and drawing. In first grade, I had a crush on a little American boy and wanted to marry him, so I grabbed scrap paper stacked near the school window sill and drew out my life plan with him—illustrating our wedding with lots of hearts and happy faces. He would crumple up all my drawings and throw them away. This never stopped me.

Motivated by love, I drew 20-50 sheets of sketches per day. If that boy did not reject me, I may never have become an artist.

A few teachers visiting the class took notice. One day, they appeared and removed me from the class to assign me to a “gifted and talented” program. My artistic path was cultivated from that period until the end of my high school years.

At fifteen, I wrote poetry. My love for writing and the visual arts led me to take a film & television course at a trade school, with a career-training program for high school students. I was one of five students—all boys. I was the only girl, and nobody wanted to make films with me.

These boys were the epitome of the people I would later meet in my life in film, from film schools to industry and the red carpet march toward Hollywood glory.

The first things these boys were eager to do was whip out the dolly to do tracking shots and emulate Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, I lost myself for hours, immersed in splicing film at the editing table.

My high school film teacher was a square broadcast guy. We argued a lot. From the onset of my love affair with filmmaking, I was fiercely independent and fought with those who tried to control my artistic vision.

Social approval and cultivation of my art were gone, once I developed an independent mind. Society loved me when I conformed and created images they could understand. But once I developed my own voice, my own style, and created something new—I was treated as disobedient and threatening.

Throughout my filmmaking path, I would meet reminders of the four boys who wouldn’t work with me. Those four boys in film schools, those four boys in Hollywood, those four boys in the indie scene, those four boys, who would be investors, would program society with their idea of cool; the four boys would be the judges for film festivals and have the final say on a film’s worthiness.

Like all pioneers, I faced depths of loneliness, knowing the possibility there is not one person that can do what I do.

After high school, I was miraculously admitted to Colorado College, a highly competitive liberal arts college. During my first few years there, I was immersed in creative writing and spent a lot of time in the closet.

Yes, the closet.

I frequently visited the basement of the Audio/Visual Department of Colorado College to pick up equipment for a work-study job. My college job entailed hooking up mikes for guest speakers at public events.

I noticed a huge assortment of film and video equipment nobody used, collecting dust against the wall. One day, I asked the head of the department if I could check them out.

The head of A/V let me borrow anything I wanted. Nobody was shooting film or video. No one knew how. I started writing scripts and shooting documentary interviews with my friends.

I majored in Fine Arts and worked out a deal with Maureen, a painting professor from Boston, to allow me to create films as an independent study. I made short films, experimental films, poetry films, and documentaries.

I went to the head of A/V to ask about editing equipment. He wheeled out a linear video editing station, covered in layers of dust, and said, “No one has ever used this. If you want, you can figure it out.” It didn’t even have an instruction manual.

We arranged for the machine to be stored inside a spare janitor’s closet on the third floor of Armstrong Hall, an academic building. He even threw in a key. For several months, I spent my nights and weekends inside a closet.

Students walked by and wondered what all these beeping error-sounds and squealing voices scrolling back and forth were.

There was a girl sitting in the closet, editing on what looked like a time machine. The interesting thing was that I was loud, and it was amazing no one ever complained, considering the intense studies taking place in that building.

Maureen, one day, sat me down and said, “Why don’t you pursue filmmaking?”

I told her I couldn’t, and I found every reason not to.

I was just one person, a small Asian girl. What power did I have to make “movies”? It seemed like an impossible endeavor. If Colorado College had a film program, I would have enrolled. This was in the dark ages, where if you wanted to study film, you moved to Hollywood or New York or attended an art school with a film division.

During this time, I was having shamanic visions and experiences. It is only in retrospect I recognize them as such, today.

While lying in my dorm room at night, supernatural flashes of light shocked my body. Whenever the light struck me, I felt this luminous, warm glow that flooded my being with infinite worlds of possibilities. When the light ripped through my spine and quaked my body, I would get an entire vision of a movie living inside me.

I didn’t choose filmmaking—it chose me. I was caught by it. Once it caught me, I felt a terrible burden, holding these visions.

I had a dream:

In the dream, I was at an ocean, where everything was blue. Blue elephants bathed along the shore. In the distance, a man walked toward me. He carried over his shoulder an archaic tripod that was huge and heavy, like the first ones invented in the film industry. This man was my father, yet he was not my father. He was the Father (you know, the big guy—Master, Healer…G’d).

He handed me the tripod, and I felt this strength and conviction, knowing I would make movies, and everything would be OK. The dream lingered in me for days, weeks, and months. I fought to ignore it, but it was like falling in love. I could not forget the powerful feeling.

A healer spiritually mentored me at that time, a Jungian shaman. He understood the nature of my dream. He taught me about failure and how it should be perceived. He said, “Failure is just like meeting a dead end on the road. What’s the worst that can happen? All you do is turn around. It’s not the end of the world.” More importantly, he confirmed the sacredness of this dream, as it was guiding my path.

The power of embracing that dream led me to move to New York to pursue my filmmaking studies. I stayed in New York and lived there most of my adult life.

There have been many crucibles, but this is half the version of my artistic journey. I have come to terms with being a filmmaker, but there is a missing component I have not yet embraced.

I have yet to acknowledge why filmmaking chose me and the greater purpose this serves. I’ve not embraced my shamanhood, for which no schools or training exists.

This sacred component completes me as an artist. It determines the true reason for why and how to carry a vision—and to carry that home.

It has taken me a lifetime to discover the metaphor of the tripod in my Big Dream. It wasn’t just about filmmaking but about holding up the legs of this world, like the great Trinity, with a vision.


Ji Strangeway
Springtime 2017, Los Angeles