The Imagery of Peace
Yvonne Ng uses her Buddhist practice to blaze a new path as a filmmaker.
Yvonne Ng, an SGI-USA member in Queens, N.Y., won the silver medal in the “alternative” film category for her thesis film, Cloud Kumo, at the 43rd Student Academy Awards, held on Sept. 22 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, California.
The World Tribune spoke with Ms. Ng about how her Buddhist practice has inspired her journey to become an award-winning filmmaker.
World Tribune: Congratulations on your Student Academy Award! What is the significance of the film’s title?
Ng: Kumo means “cloud” in Japanese, and in talking to many people about the atomic bombings, usually the first thing that comes to their minds is the image of a mushroom cloud. So I think people see that image as a symbol of tragedy, but for me, making this film was my way of turning it into a symbol of humanity rising above devastation.
WT: What is your film about?
Ng: The grandmother in my film is a real-life hibakusha, who was 7 years old when the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima in 1945. But the film itself is a fictional piece about a grandmother and her granddaughter finding meaning amid the devastating effects wrought by nuclear weapons and, together, facing the future with hope and perseverance.
WT: What inspired you to create this film?
Ng: In May 2014, I had the opportunity to join other SGI representatives at the United Nations to observe preparations leading up to the 2015 Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. This treaty is considered the cornerstone of global nuclear nonproliferation. I realized then how little the media was shedding light on the subject of nuclear disarmament and its very real threat to humankind.
WT: What did you decide to do next?
Ng: On a personal level, I had come to a plateau in my photography career. Around that same time, I read about a youth asking SGI President Ikeda what his dream was, to which he responded: “My dream is to realize the dream of Mr. Toda” (Discussions on Youth, new edition, Appendix B), and that resonated with me as Sensei’s disciple. So I asked myself, What can I do in my own craft to respond to my mentor’s dream to see that nuclear weapons no longer exist?
In my personal creative journey, film seemed like a natural progression of my photography career, so I decided to make a film that shed light on the imminent threat of nuclear weapons. My prayer was that my future work in film would become a large platform to spread Sensei’s message of humanism and the inherent dignity of life.
WT: How did you go about making the film?
Ng: I had zero background in film. Quite mystically, soon after making my determination, I was asked to support two film productions, including a “Buddhist in America” episode, which solidified for me my newfound dream to make films that are deeply rooted in humanity. These unexpected opportunities enabled me to submit a portfolio to City College of New York’s master’s film program. Within three months, in August 2014, I went from only having a vision to starting graduate school. It was almost unbelievable how quickly everything aligned.
WT: What obstacles did you face?
Ng: I always thought I was a confident young woman, but when I started film school, everything in my life crumbled. I was often at the bottom of my class and received a lot of criticism for my work. This triggered in me a lack of self-worth. At times, I experienced severe panic attacks and couldn’t sleep, eat or even focus on the most basic tasks. In my first year of school alone, I went to urgent care seven times, and with no health insurance, my medical bills piled up. But through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I realized that my anxiety was rooted in my fear of failure. I feared that I wouldn’t “make it” and would end up disappointing everyone who had high hopes for me.
WT: What changed?
Ng: One day, I opened up A Youthful Diary and started reading about President Ikeda’s life when he was 31 years old, the same age I was at the time. Reading about his struggles and perseverance gave me the strength and motivation to push through.
I would chant in front of the Gohonzon, write and chant again, and that’s how I came up with the script for Cloud Kumo. Through the process of making this film, I determined to repay my debt of gratitude to Sensei by becoming the happiest young woman in the world. Ultimately, making this film was an expedient means to change all aspects of my life. And in doing so, I wanted to be a role model for other young women and show them that we can transform any situation with this practice.
WT: What else changed in your life?
Ng: I harbored great pain from my parents’ divorce, and I hadn’t spoken to my father in 15 years. Deep down, I wanted a relationship with him again, but I didn’t feel worthy enough. One day, I was chanting about this and thought to myself, If Sensei entrusts me with the mission of kosen-rufu, then why can’t I trust myself? Once I recognized this tendency to belittle my own life, I felt newfound confidence.
In the process, my pain toward my father turned into deep appreciation for giving me life. I thought about what a hard worker and brilliant photographer he is and realized I’m able to do what I do today because of him.
In January, I flew to Singapore to see him, and we had a four-hour heartfelt dialogue. On June 3, I graduated from my master’s program, and my father and mother both came to my commencement ceremony. We took a photo together, and I shared that photo and my family victory with Sensei.
WT: What was your reaction to learning you had won the Student Academy Award?
Ng: I started tearing up and immediately wrote to President Ikeda about my victory. I couldn’t believe it. I’m just so happy that I now have a platform for more people to see Sensei’s vision for peace, and that I am helping him fulfill his work toward abolishing nuclear weapons.
Interview conducted by Liz Nobukuni.