Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Aaron Toronto of DayLight Productions Is Helping To Change Our World
“Get ready for the long haul, it’s gonna take longer than you think.” It took me almost 20 years to get my first feature made and in theaters. I had no idea it was going to take that long. Honestly it was exhausting always expecting that my time was right around the corner, but it seemed to never come. Just get comfortable and don’t work yourself into a tizzy. Take it one step at a time and don’t give up. The people who fail are the ones who don’t take the next step. How long can you stand the fire?
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Toronto.
Aaron Toronto has worked in the Vietnamese film, television and theatre industries for eighteen years as director, writer, producer and actor. He has worked on such hits as Tracer, Tam Cam: The Untold Story and Jailbait. He and Nha Uyen, his filmmaking partner, founded DayLight Productions and is making his feature film directorial debut with The Brilliant Darkness!. He co-founded Dragonfly Theatre Co. that has boasted such classics as Waiting for Godot and Dangerous Liaisons, as well as their original production of The Little Prince. Aaron has lived over half his life overseas and speaks Spanish, Japanese and is near native in Vietnamese.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
Filmmaking is in my blood. I found that out when my parents bought a VHS camcorder when I was 12, and without anyone prompting me or showing me how or helping me along, I just started making movies. By myself, with my GI Joe and Star Wars figures and I haven’t stopped.
After serving an LDS mission in Virginia working with Vietnamese people, I studied film at BYU (Brigham Young University) and USC (University of Southern California) — though I didn’t get into the major there and instead majored in East Asian Language and Culture — Japanese.
After graduating from USC in 2003, a Vietnamese friend from the US asked me to direct two music videos for his burgeoning singing career in Vietnam. By then I already spoke Vietnamese and my career in this far-off land began.
Though I always wanted to be a writer / director, I started my career with no money, no connections and no idea of how to get the resources to make a feature film. When no one showed up at my door with hundreds of thousands of dollars to give me, I had to survive somehow, so I started assistant directing. That is the worst job on the film crew, and it was a true trial by fire. After that I moved on to line producing, as well as editing and screenwriting various features.
By the time fifteen years had passed, I had become jaded at my lack of success in becoming a feature film director. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I was able to find a way to make my first feature. As the film was finally coming together, I realized, however, that the 15 years of experience in making other people’s movies gave me the craft I needed to make the best first film I could.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
When I first came to Vietnam in the early to mid-2000s, I was directing music videos. One of the videos I directed won an award, so I began to get some attention from the press and the public, especially because I was an American who spoke fluent Vietnamese. I was invited on the Vietnamese version of the “Pyramid” game show. I was still fairly new to Vietnam and my head was spinning at the unexpected direction my life was taking. As I was standing in the wings behind a huge cardboard pyramid, listening to the MC introduce me in Vietnamese, I thought, “What strange twist of fate has brought me to this moment?”
I’m pretty sure I lost on the show that day, but it was one of the first steps on a completely unexpected journey that hasn’t stopped yet.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I have worked with many of the top artists, filmmakers and producers in Vietnam. At first, I was somewhat starstruck, but after some time I came to see how every single person that works in the industry is a normal human being, trying their hardest to achieve their goals.
The entertainment industry anywhere in the world is a vicious, dog-eat-dog world, sometimes underhanded, always fiercely competitive and soul-trying. This is as true in Vietnam as anywhere else.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
One person I greatly admire is General Ulysses S Grant. After a vicious, bloody civil war, Grant gave honorable terms of surrender to his former enemies, his brothers from the South, and told his men to doff their hats to Lee and his men as they left Appomattox courthouse. He ran and won the presidency on the slogan “Let Us Have Peace” and worked tirelessly to bring the South back into the Union, when many had very vengeful emotions. It is very rare for a person with great power to use it to turn the tide of hate to work for healing and peace. His is an example that could be very useful in today’s politics.
I also greatly admire Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu for the same reason, when they created the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid. They very easily could have used their new power to take revenge on the very individuals who had oppressed their people for so long, but they decided to use it to try to bring peace and healing to their nation.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Domestic abuse, both physical and psychological, is a horrific, systemic problem in Vietnam. Almost every Vietnamese person is somehow affected by it. Because of it, there are millions who must bear a ponderous psychological burden. Millions of people unable to fulfill their potential. Millions of families broken, unable to even share a hug or say, “I love you”. And yet it’s a problem that is almost never spoken of.
My wife, Nha Uyen, and I wanted desperately to tell a story that would begin a discussion of how deep and terrible this problem is. That was the genesis for The Brilliant Darkness!. Nha Uyen, who wrote the film with me and plays the lead role, has gone through abuse herself, and in large part is the inspiration for many of the characters and events in the film. Simply playing the lead role of Song has helped her work through some of the terrible demons inside her that still haunt her to this day.
Since its domestic Vietnam release in April 2022, the film has had a significant impact on the awareness of domestic abuse and mental illness among the public in Vietnam. Many people have come up to us personally in tears to express their thanks for making the film and have described how the film has helped them recognize that they have been abused and helped them to begin recovery.
The film has contributed to a much-needed conversation on how to address these issues. This wider discussion has resulted in celebrities speaking more openly about the issue and the government taking action, in the form of education and creating new laws to protect women and children. The mental health coaching industry, as well as interest in becoming mental health professionals, has seen a significant increase in the past few months. In addition, we hope the film will start a trend and inspire other filmmakers to address social problems through their work.
We hope that in becoming widely seen and appreciated, The Brilliant Darkness! will help millions of victims start on the long path to recovery, in first recognizing the deep wounds in their minds and hearts, and second understanding what has to happen for healing to occur. We believe it’s time to break the silence and for the healing to begin.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
For ten years I lived in Vietnam without ever realizing that abuse goes on unseen in so many homes. Vietnamese people are famous for being very friendly to visitors and not holding any grudge against the French and Americans for causing decades of terrible war and suffering. I thought, along with so many other foreigners, that the Vietnamese people were able to suffer through so much destruction without suffering any serious psychological impact.
However, after I got married, I began to experience firsthand the serious psychological devastation brought on by domestic abuse, as manifested through my wife’s mental illness due to childhood abuse, as is normal for many families. At first, I thought our problems were simply cultural incompatibility, but gradually both she and I came to understand and accept the truth — that she was suffering from a form of PTSD. It was after this that we both realized the severity of the problem in Vietnamese society in general, and the urgency with which the problem needed to be addressed.
When we began to be able to pool the resources to make a feature film, we were immediately determined to make a film addressing domestic abuse and mental illness. All of our colleagues and acquaintances advised us against it, saying we needed to make a commercial film first to gain a foothold in the industry, then make the film we really wanted to make. We were not able to follow this advice. If we were only able to ever make one film, we wanted it to be the film we believed in, to be the film that would do some good for the people that watched it. As such, against all advice, we made The Brilliant Darkness!, an unflinching, difficult look at abuse and suffering in a Vietnamese family.
Many of the scenes of abuse and mental illness in The Brilliant Darkness! are adapted from Nha Uyen’s personal experience or what she’s witnessed. I am amazed at her bravery and painful honesty in making this film the way she did in both the writing and her raw performance, and I admire her determination to fight to help people like herself.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There have been many people that have told us of the great impact the film has had on their lives, but for me the most important person to be impacted is my wife and filmmaking partner, Nha Uyen. Many of the depictions of abuse and mental illness in the film comes from her personal experience, as she is herself struggling with the effects of childhood abuse.
It is beginning to be more and more well known that drama can play a significant role in healing sufferers of mental illness. Playing the role of Song was a healing therapy for Nha Uyen. This was made very clear when we filmed the final scene of the film on the funeral car.
In the script for that scene, it says that Song takes her father’s hand in a gesture of understanding and forgiveness. However, when it came time to shoot the scene, Nha Uyen said that she couldn’t take his hand, in part because we had just filmed a fierce confrontation between Song and Toan and she wasn’t ready emotionally, but also because she had not yet forgiven her own father in real life. Psychologically she couldn’t play the scene, even though she had written the scene herself and knew the importance of it to the meaning of the story.
At this point we had shot all night long — after three weeks of night shoots — and it is now about eight in the morning, so everyone is understandably exhausted. I spent an hour trying to help her get ready to do the scene. Finally, she agreed, and we shot it as written.
After the film was completed, she looked back on this scene and realized that something changed within her as she was shooting it. As Song forgave her father Toan in the movie, a weight was lifted from within Nha Uyen, and she forgave her father in real life. The expression of overcoming and catharsis on the character Song’s face as she puts her hand on her father’s knee is actually a moment of profound forgiveness and enlightenment for the actress Nha Uyen. Life imitates art, indeed.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
The great work of healing is done from person to person, one individual and one relationship at a time. As we realize that we have been victims of abuse in our own childhood, and that we ourselves are continuing the cycle of abuse with our own children, we must try to have the courage to accept a new way of raising our kids, to boldly heal our relationships with our own parents, and to seek professional therapy.
I am awed at Nha Uyen’s courage to reveal her own illness publicly and that she has had therapy, to start a precedent and give a powerful example for others to follow. As change comes individual by individual, family by family, soon society as a whole will begin to change.
As awareness of these problems and their solutions begins to grow, government officials should create incentives for people to become mental health professionals to begin to address the dearth of quality therapy that now exists in Vietnamese society.
In America, let’s take away the stigma of mental illness, be willing to accept that those close to us may be suffering, and realize the mental health is just as important, and just as often threatened, as our physical health. Let’s normalize seeking therapy and caring deeply for others psychological well-being. We should suffer in silence no longer.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
“Get ready for the long haul, it’s gonna take longer than you think.”
It took me almost 20 years to get my first feature made and in theaters. I had no idea it was going to take that long. Honestly it was exhausting always expecting that my time was right around the corner, but it seemed to never come. Just get comfortable and don’t work yourself into a tizzy. Take it one step at a time and don’t give up. The people who fail are the ones who don’t take the next step. How long can you stand the fire?
“No one is supposed to give you a shot.” & “Make your own opportunities.”
I sometimes felt hurt and jaded because no one gave me the opportunity I wanted. But this was wasted, negative energy and just made my journey harder. No one owes you anything, everyone has their yoke they’re carrying on their shoulders, everyone’s fighting for their square inch of land. Stop thinking about what people owe you and make your square inch yourself. In the end, I learned how to write, how to produce, how to start a company and find investment so that I could direct the film I wanted to.
“Don’t get cocky just because you see yourself in a magazine.”
Within the first year of moving to Vietnam, I was getting some attention in magazines and on TV as a young foreign director. I thought I was pretty hot stuff and that soon I’d be taking over the entire industry. This attitude didn’t help me at all and all the attention I got left as quickly as it came. Fame is excruciatingly fickle. I’ve found that people that have just stepped into the arena but are not yet stars are the ones that tend to be the most puffed up. Avoid this pitfall, it’s all smoke and mirrors. Do your work, build your career, and you’ll always have a foundation to fall back on.
“Get ready for an all-out brawl”
The entertainment industry is one that pools an incredible amount of power, wealth and influence. As such, it’s a WW1 style trench fight for every square foot of land. Prepare yourself for this. Ask yourself if this is the world you want to live in. If so, great, steel yourself and move forward. If not, please just make no-budget films on your DSLR camera, you’ll be much happier.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
It is profoundly difficult to make a film — from finding the money, to getting it made, then to getting it seen once it’s finished. Due to lack of experience and resources, many first-time filmmakers are not able to make the film they see in their head, and many are not given the chance to make a second film. I would say to young filmmakers, if you get a chance to make a feature, give it significance and impact, make it something that will profoundly affect those who see it, that will effect change for good. Shine a light on something personally painful, help others know that they’re not alone in their suffering. Do something powerful, it might be your only shot.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Ava DuVernay is a powerful filmmaker I really love and admire, especially for When They See Us and 13th. I believe in the power of cinema to raise awareness and affect hearts and minds for the better, and she’s someone who’s really exemplified this. I’d love to just be a fly on the wall and see how she works.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Two things have helped me stay the path and achieve what I’ve done till now: A strong instinct of who I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do, and my faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Be who you are and be proud of it. It’s the only thing you truly have.
How can our readers follow you online?
Nha Uyen and I are not big on social media, but we do have a Facebook fan page: Aaron & Uyen (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100078570437967) It will help if you speak Vietnamese or are handy with Google translate….
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!
Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Aaron Toronto of DayLight Productions Is… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.