Emmy-Winning Filmmaker Launches Creative Program To Help People Rediscover Who They Are

Each of us are born with the ability to dream and imagine what we’d like to do with our lives. Along the way, as we get older, expectations, social norms and the mounting pressures that come with needing to be financially stable seem to push out those dreams and in some cases leave us with a complete void of creativity. Who has the time for art when we need to spend all our time working and taking care of our families and ourselves, right?

If this picture we just painted immediately triggers stress or anxiety, we invite you here to pause and take a breath. You are not alone. Many of us are in the same situation, searching for a way to bring more balance into our lives. Finding your creative center can perhaps be the missing ingredient to help balance, while also helping you rediscover those long lost dreams or ambitions.

Someone who understands this all too well is Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and meditation teacher Dandan Liu. For Dandan, filmmaking was not the pathway she was “meant” to follow, coming from a family of scientists. She initially followed in their footsteps before taking a drastic turn away from the lab and toward the lens of the camera, where she would rediscover her creativity.

After booking a one-way ticket to Japan and spending 4 years living in monasteries and learning about meditation, she realized that following her family’s career path was not the way for her. Realizing she wanted to be a filmmaker, Dandan made a drastic change but did not follow traditional filmmaking “rules” or steps. She has not been to film school and is not a formally trained director, yet she has made numerous films that have impacted many people.

It was going on her own journey of self-discovery that inspired her to start a 12 week creative project to help others do the same. Through the process of unraveling all the expectations and social norms thrust upon her from an early age, Dandan realized each of us needs to go through an unravelling to find our center. The program, aptly titled Unravel, is intended to help people who are lost turn their lives into their unique work of art. So far she has built up a community of members who come from all walks of life and countries, spanning 15 to 77 years old.

From helping newborn mothers out of postpartum depression to helping teens find belonging in themselves, the impact of this program is far reaching. We wanted to learn more about Unravel and what it means to go on a journey of self-discovery, and asked Dandan to share more about her own journey and what she hopes people will learn from this latest round of the course which begins March 30th, 2023, with enrollment beginning March 14.

Before we unravel your story and journey, can you share a little about your upbringing, and where your career began?

As a creative, I’m not even known as the black sheep but as the genetic mutant in my family. I was raised in a long lineage of devoted scientists, where science was the entire subculture I grew up in. Latex, distilled alcohol, cartridge toner, and coffee- that is one dominant smell of my childhood, which any scientist would recognize as the scent of a laboratory.

My father, who is a first generation immigrant, discovered a cell which is pivotal to immune therapies today. My mother’s work splatters the top journals in this field. On weekends, scientists would come over to our house and look over slides of tissues, with great fanfare as if they were watching the Superbowl. 

So, it’s no surprise that science was set as my North Star from a young age, and one that I worked really hard towards. After I graduated from university, I was working in cancer research, already with a few publications under my belt. Everything was as it should be, except for one thing: I was deeply unhappy and unfulfilled. While the thought of coming to the lab for the next forty years crushed my chest, I didn’t know what else I could do. Science was the only path I knew. 

By some stroke of grace, one day in a bookstore, I randomly stumbled upon a book called ‘First Light’ by Sue Monk Kidd. In her pages, she was talking about the inner life, one beyond what we usually see, and referencing a few contemplatives like Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh. I felt this instant kinship and sense of belonging in her words, as if I was not learning something new, but remembering something familiar. So, I began exploring other contemplative writers and felt this ember of curiosity for the inner life growing.  

Eventually, there came a point when I just couldn’t deny the feeling that science was not right for me. As Anais Nin beautifully puts it: “The time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” So, I decided to take a one year break, where I’d go explore different forms of contemplative living around the world. 

This one year turned into a four year journey living in monasteries of different traditions, from Japan to Jerusalem. During this exploration, I kept encountering these fascinating perspectives from the people around me, and I felt a deep calling to record their stories. At the time, I couldn’t afford film school, so I decided to try and piece together my own filmmaking education, which led me to develop this minimalist soulful filmmaking style. One film led to the next, which opened more and more doors, including this beautiful path of teaching. This is how my creative career began. 

You made the bold leap from the stability of science, to the unpredictability of filmmaking. What drew you to this industry?

Documentary filmmaking felt like it pulled together many threads that I loved: storytelling, writing, music, photography, puzzles, people, deep conversation, and exploration. I loved how it wasn’t just a report, but a multidimensional deep dive into people’s worlds. I loved how it was this process of co-creation with your subjects that ultimately transformed you as a person too. 

Can you share what it was like winning an Emmy Award, and the path to that success?

I will never forget the moment they called my film’s name ‘Dottie’ at the Emmy Awards. I just remember a wave of memories passing by, made of all the choices and energy put into this path that led me there. Small choices, like choosing to pull out my camera one afternoon, despite resistance from my inner critic. Big choices, like driving to New Mexico with film equipment in my car, going all in on an intuitive whisper. It was like I could see how all of these choices connected and added up through the years. 

This moment of victory was surreal and sweet, because it confirmed how you don’t need a bunch of resources to create beautiful impactful work. I didn’t go to film school, don’t own fancy equipment, and have self funded all my films on a shoestring budget. ‘Dottie’ was my 10th film, born out of the choice to make film after film despite the rejections and looking like a crazy person to my community. This moment confirmed how resourcefulness, inner knowing, openness to keep learning can get you very far. If I can do it, you can too. 

On your website, you state: “It didn’t start out like this” next to the picture of you with your Emmy Statue. Why was it important to be open about what happens behind the scenes of success?

I think when people see your success, they imagine the path was linear and smooth. They tend to glorify you as this gifted creator who has these abilities that supersede what they can ever have. As a creative and an educator in this space, I feel it’s my deep responsibility to show the truth: we all began at zero and journeyed a squiggly path, filled with struggles, boring days, and uncertain messy middles. 

Even today, I still doubt my capabilities. I still have those tough days, when I just want to pull the covers over my head and not show up or share my work. I still receive those rejection letters that sting. I have grown to understand that this is just part of the path, and I think it’s so important to normalize these aspects in the larger conversation of what it means to be an independent creative. Because when people compare their own bumpy realities to this mythic ideal, it causes them to stop believing in themselves and stop the path all together.

Through the years, I’ve also come to see how limiting this concept of arrival is- that there is this point you reach where you’ll no longer struggle or doubt as a creative. I’m sinking soberly to this realization that this point doesn’t exist. Like a mirage in the desert, it’s an illusion that can keep us on this never-ending chase and separate us from appreciating the journey. I’ve come to accept how these struggles are an integral part of the process, and one that you can grow to love. You can learn how to reorient your relationship to these challenges, so they no longer become enemies but allies to your journey. 

I actually created a short film called ‘A Love Letter to Filmmaking‘, which shares very candidly the struggles I faced on my path and the wisdom I learned from this medium. 

Unravel Journey Intro from Dandan Liu on Vimeo.

Let’s talk about Unravel- what is the program all about, and where did the idea come from?

Unravel is my signature online program of self discovery, for those who long to live life as their truest creative expression. It is all about reclaiming your unique life of joy and sense of belonging in yourself, free from the big fears that keep you small, inauthentic, and disconnected from the heart of living.

As someone who has explored the personal growth world for over a decade, I have seen that its offerings tend to paradoxically pull people further away from wholehearted authentic living. I have seen that many coaches and courses create this codependency with their clients, selling pre-packaged template solutions that don’t last very long. This is reflected by many frustrated people who come into Unravel, wondering, “why is my life still feeling off, despite all my efforts to change?”

I designed Unravel so that it addresses these issues and provides the most efficient, systematic path home to one’s truth, using unique tools like play and embodiment to facilitate the self reclamation process. What makes this program even more powerful is our community, made of people from all walks of life, which has been known to restore people’s faith in humanity. When you journey together, you go much farther. 

I’m proud to say that none of our Unravelers have come back and asked me: “What is my next step?” In fact, I still receive messages today from our alumni, saying how the effects of this program still live and deepen inside them, even a year after the program has finished. It’s truly a journey that lives in you and ripples out to benefit your loved ones. 

Using the metaphor of a caterpillar going into the chrysalis to become a butterfly, why do you think it is so uncomfortable for many of us to sit in that stage of “becoming mush” to enter our next phase in life? 

I think it comes down to our fear of the unknown. When you enter the chrysalis or any time of self reckoning, there is a shedding of all the false or outdated layers of your identity. There is a letting go of all the armor that you’ve put on to protect yourself from being seen in your truth. 

When you let these parts go, you’re left with this emptiness, this undefined in-between state which can feel very vulnerable. You’ll no longer have these old parts of your self concept as handlebars to hold onto. You’ll have to wade into life’s open water, exposing yourself to potential loss, pain, and rejection. You’ll no longer have these walls to hide from yourself. You’ll have to face and work through the parts that you have denied or dismissed through the years. 

This is why entering this chrysalis is nothing short of a heroic act. It requires the cultivation of an important skill: learning how to be with your discomfort. Those who practice this skill and choose to go through this brave process are richly rewarded. They go from half living to full living. They step off the sidelines of life and become its true participants.

Although it will take tremendous courage, the good news is you don’t have to enter this chrysalis alone. In fact, this is a big reason why I created Unravel. You can go through this molting with a community of supportive people who are embracing the same process and feeling the same fears as you. This is why it’s so powerful and life-giving when you can do this inner work with a safe and nurturing community, like our Cocoon. 

What makes the Unravel community so unique?

Our community is hands-down the favorite and most surprising part for our Unravelers. It has even pulled the most staunch introverts from their dens and made them excited to participate. There are many things that make our community unique and transformative.

While most groups tend to have certain unspoken expectations on how to show up and interact, in our community, you get to come as you are. In fact, you are celebrated for coming as you are. There is no need to feign positivity or show up in a certain way, besides upholding the values of kindness and respect. There’s no such thing as taking up too much or too little space. There’s no such thing as a stupid question or a foolish response. 

Unravel is a protected safe space, where whatever is shared will not be met with judgment, but with loving acceptance. It is not a community where you have to earn your belonging. You belong just by being. 

This safety is the key ingredient to the self reclamation and healing process, which is also stewarded by having loving witnesses journeying with you.

The third unique element of our community is its diversity. We’ve had Unravelers joining us from all walks of life, 15-77 years old so far. We’ve had freelance artists, corporate managers, newborn mothers, retirees, librarians, technical workers, and those in transition. This diversity forms the rich soil of perspectives that will nourish and accelerate your transformation. Every community member will be a mirror for you to see important parts of yourself. 

What main takeaways do you want people to leave with after participating in Unravel.

The first takeaway is a felt sense of who they truly are. Due to our mainstream culture and education system, we have internalized certain values and desires for lives that are not our own. This mismatch creates a lot of suffering, friction, and confusion, which makes life feel like an uphill battle instead of a downward flow.

The second takeaway is a complete toolkit for aligned wholehearted living. I’m not here to give Unravelers another pre-packaged template for them to fit their lives in. I won’t even be giving them the answers. Instead, I’ll be giving them all the tools they’ll need to discover and dance with their ever-evolving truth.

In fact, my benchmark for success as a guide is that the Unravelers never have to come back to me and ask: what is my next step? So far, I’m proud to say that I have not had one return and ask me that question. 

The third takeaway I hope people will leave Unravel with is freedom from the limiting beliefs, big fears, and survival strategies that have kept them small. In fact, many Unravelers say they were able to unlock and heal parts of themselves that 15 years of therapy couldn’t. 

If you could go back in time 10 years and give your younger self some advice or words of wisdom, what would it be?

I would say: trust your gut. If you have to rationalize a decision to make it right, it’s not the right decision. 

What makes you a powerful woman today?

I feel my strength lies in my deep curiosity to learn from life. 

If you want to rediscover your creativity, learn more about the Unravel program and enroll now by clicking HERE. Follow Dandan Liu on Instagram.

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