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Meet Dayna Li

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dayna Li.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Dayna. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I applied to college thinking I wanted to do something with public service and international relations, such as joining the Foreign Service. I ended up majoring in comparative politics at Princeton, focusing my independent research on international human rights issues concerning refugees and victims of trafficking. During my time there, however, I felt this need to create; I had grown up playing violin, and I was interested in exploring other artistic outlets. Theater and film was always something that interested me and which I had done a bit of in middle and high school, and I started out trying to get into acting and theater. I spent a summer as an acting apprentice at the Powerhouse Theater Apprentice Company. I kept thinking about what would be a good way to combine my interest in social justice and the arts while having a large scale impact. I found that film and storytelling was a great way to do so. I started with documentary classes, and my senior year I made a thesis film called “The Pretty People” about Princeton’s social dynamics. Though the process was very challenging, I fell in love with creating a world and working with a team, and I decided to pursue directing from there. Now, I am working both on narrative films and documentaries. I still try to find opportunities to act and keep up with violin. I’ve also developed an interest in journalism as another form of storytelling.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
It has actually been a pretty bumpy road, both in finding what I want to do and my voice as an artist. Originally, I encountered a lot of rejection with acting, which made me pivot more towards directing, but at the same time I did find a real love for directing. When I graduated from college, I had no idea where to start. Most of the people I knew were going into more traditional jobs, and they were skeptical of me pursuing an unstable path. I did not have much of a community or support system. I tried doing internships as a way to make connections while still having time to work on my own projects, but that was not financially sustainable. Then I tried to apply to assistant positions, and also experienced a lot of rejection in that space. After about a year of applying to assistant positions, I actually felt that maybe the assistant road was not the best for me. I went back to school at Chapman and found it was a great way to develop my voice while meeting like-minded peers. Finding my voice as an artist has also been really difficult. Initially, I felt very affected by all the critiques I would receive on my projects. Because the critique was often conflicting, I got confused about what I really wanted as a director. Being able to stay true to my original intentions is something I’m still working on, but I view my ability to select which critique to listen to a sign of growth.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I hope to incorporate my background studying human rights issues and love for traveling into making human interest/impact films. During my second year at Chapman, I directed a film about a family in Syria who are in their home during the war and trying to decide whether to stay or leave. I did research by traveling to a refugee camp outside of Athens and talking to people from Syria. The film was shot in Arabic. It premiered at Austin Film Festival last fall, where it was nominated for a Student Short Jury Award. My thesis “Aurora” is an LGBTQ story about a young woman who falls in love with another woman for the first time, and I’m hoping to make it one part of an anthology feature about women struggling with their sexuality. I also am working on a documentary through Chapman’s Community Voices class about the debate over decriminalization of prostitution across the United States. We’ve traveled to New York, DC, Kansas City, and the Bay Area to shoot and have shot with sex workers and NGO workers.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I’m working on my first feature, the anthology about women struggling with their sexuality. I’m planning to submit my thesis film “Aurora” to festivals and see if I can find funding for the other parts of the film through that route. I also hope to develop the documentary I’m making on decriminalization of prostitution. We’re starting to get more sex workers to talk to us, and seeing more of how broad the debate really is. Right now, the documentary is short, but I think it has potential to go in-depth with the issue and be a feature. I’m also working on a feature script based off my college thesis “The Pretty People,” and a producer classmate is planning to pitch the idea. We’re looking to get a writer who has more experience working in the industry to take over the writing part.

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