Friday, February 5, 2016

My Blazing, Gypsy Italian Summer: l'estate da vivere

"How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend, some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold." 
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

stormclouds over the alps in Aosta
It’s been over four months since I’ve returned from Italy; seven since I left LA for the film program CinemadaMare (Cinema of the Sea). Quite frankly, up until now, I didn’t have the heart, or the courage to write about my journey in Italy. Posting this entry has an aching sense of finality to it as I let summer 2015 go and embrace the new year. It’s a bittersweet moment, but I know I have to move on in order to grow.

When the plane took off in the summer haze of late June 2015, and I made my journey to Europe, I wondered if I had over-exerted the wanderer in me and made a mistake running off again- barely a month after returning from Tanzania. I wasn’t ready for Italy, I thought. Traveling yet again to new territories had begun to scare me. Perhaps I didn’t want to move around anymore. Perhaps I just wanted to settle down with the guy I was dating then and be normal. Little did I know I was headed straight into the craziest, most beautiful, and emotionally-charged supernova summer.

midnight dancing in the rain
When young, international filmmakers are thrown together- creating, dreaming, laughing, crying, finding a way to make the best out of refugee-like living situations, a special bond is formed. I think back to my first impressions of people a lot- my subconscious labeling of people whom I didn’t have the privilege of sharing life with yet. Some I saw as players, small tyrants, and attention-seekers. Others I marveled for their talent, popularity, or graceful mannerisms. And many I simply was too overwhelmed by new faces to slap a label on.  But gradually, as the weeks flew past, living in community melted quick judgement and even cultural stereotypes, because beneath first impressions is vulnerability, and vulnerability is the start to a tight-knit family. I will never forget the day I watched one of our staff tearfully share how he had not seen his little boy in over 9 years- how every penny he made was saved up for his son. Until then, all I had known of this man was that he was an anxious, temperamental soul with a taste for alcohol. Nor will I forget our last night in Venice, when I took turns playing the piano and sharing music with a new friend. In that moonlit moment, it was as if every stereotype I could have ever slapped on him melted away, and I saw not his physical self, but understood his soul for what God had created him to be.

I learned that the best kind of love was when I knew someone well enough to have been hurt by them; and still knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are a beautiful and worthy human being. The best kind of love is when I see the fingerprints of God on each and every person around me- in their generosity, in their laughter, their humor, their desire to understand one another, and their desire to love and be loved. By the end of the program, I grew to deeply love because I began to see that this is only a fraction of how Jesus must love them too. And gradually, the lessons I learned about love began to be reflected in my own animations created there. They were stories about my family.

I grew accustomed to waking up to 60+ people around me: some hungover, some asleep on their air mattresses, and some already running around with their film equipment. In one particular city, all 80 of us were given one gym to sleep in together, and so we found ourselves stacked side by side together like sardines, one air mattress after another. But what life it was to see people constantly around me, whether it was playing basketball, editing videos, napping, eating fruit and yogurt out of a mug, or drinking matte! Anytime I needed a friend, I found at least 30 in that stuffy gymnasium. The following week we were living, for the first time, in a convent, where we we had our own rooms, bathrooms, and real beds! But I will never forget the first few days of arriving in Aosta when all of us carried an expression of forlornness or loneliness because we didn’t know how to handle being separated from each other. We were feeling the cost of privacy in every shut door, with every wall that separated our lives from each other.

gathering luggage at our new location
silly shenanigans in Maratea
In moments like this I begin to understand the disinterest the Tanzanian Maasai had shown to living in our developed countries, even after touring them. “It’s so lonely,” they had complained. Now I understand. I had once described our living conditions (no privacy, suitcase living, cold showers, gross communal bathrooms, and no stable location) to someone, and in horror he exclaimed “And you want to go back to that?” But in exchange for the incredible community and camaraderie I had experienced in Italy, poor living conditions are a small price to pay indeed. I would give up all my comforts here in a heartbeat just to see all of those lovely faces again. This community had seen me at my best when I was directing my own animated films, interviewing in Italian, smiling at everyone I saw; I felt like the darling of Cinemadamare. But they had also seen me at my worst- days like those in Muro Lucano where I was insecure, hurting and didn’t want to do anything but lay on my air mattress and drown in depression. In between ecstatic, sunshine-filled days; were also moonlit hours of sitting in silence together, contemplating heartbreak, adulthood, and purpose.

Personally, this summer challenged my creativity and faith in a way that no other experience ever had. Artists are free-spirited, unbound by rules, and live for expression. Christianity, on the other hand, has it’s set of values, traditions, and an ultimate purpose that can seem extremely legalistic. I happen to be both an artist and a Christian, and thus found myself caught frequently in a crossfire between both identities. Adapting to this new bohemian culture in Italy meant adopting a new lifestyle that may not align with "western/conservative" Christian culture, yet were not "unbiblical." For example, light social drinking, dancing, and producing controversial/thought-provoking content became something that I thoroughly enjoyed with friends. We weren’t there on a “mission”, we were also participants of Cinemadamare who happened to be Christian, but for me- to hold onto Jesus as my identity had made all the difference. It grounded what I knew to be true of myself amidst waves that could have taken me anywhere. And on that foundation, I discovered a growing purpose not only as an animator, but as an artist to express the beauty I saw in people- whether through language, music, writing, poetry, illustration, or animation. 

Conversazione con Riccio
A Room Without Sense
Io Ti Vedo (I See You)

Fast forward to February 2016, and I find myself back in East Africa, wandering around the city of Nairobi like the little nomad I have become. Instead of over-exerting my inner wanderer, I returned with an increased thirst for adventure and a re-kindled desire to be challenged.

soooo thankful for my East African family in Nairobi!
Cinemadamare was a lot of things to me: a film program, a love story, a cultural modge-podge, and a summer that challenged me creatively, emotionally, and spiritually. I think of the day when my two friends and I were the only people atop the peak the Italian alps watching a snowfall way in the distance on a greater mountain.  Or the moment we had just finished filming a Bollywood flash mob, and stayed up late in the evening filming some strange film with medieval costumes and Venetian masks. Or that night in Venice where we got lost and walked past abandoned hospitals to find ourselves on a film set in strange Tim Burton-esque costumes in an abandoned theatre. And there was the day when the four of us escaped to Sicily and stayed at a party too long, so instead of making it back home we drove to a beach house and fell asleep on the pier. I slept on a docked boat, and the three others in lawn chairs. And I remember the times when I saw people break- whether it be from a disapproving father, a loss of identity after trauma, or the most common-heartbreak. But I also remember seeing people opening their hearts to a newfound international family and radiating pure joy.

bollywood flash mob
escaping to Sicily
strange Venetian masks
It was only natural to experience heartbreak in such adventures, because we had fallen in love with each other. Many of us (myself included) hurt deeply after the program because we had loved deeply. For my part, I feel that everytime I reminisce on Cinemadamare, my heart grows a little bigger because I can feel the burning love we have for each other, even when we are separated by oceans and borders. As with the end of any healthy relationship, my summer of 2015 leaves me with shining memories, keepsakes that make me braver, stronger, and kinder to face the world around me. My Italian adventures had imprinted on me a curiosity to search for God in the broken places, and inspired me to bring out the beauty I know is there. Grazie, Cinemadamare, for teaching me to love freely, create fearlessly, and learn ceaselessly. 



    1. thanks!!! Really hope that one day I can travel in the same way with you and Angela!!! <3