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Student Success | Class of 2015

June 3, 2015

Ya Gao - College of Arts and Letters, Class of 2015YA GAO
Master of Fine Arts in television, film and theatre
College of Arts and Letters

At Cal State L.A., Ya Gao not only learned the art of filmmaking, she found her community.

Ya was a shy teenager raised in China. Films were always her refuge. She’d spend hours in her room watching movies like The Truman Show. After high school, Gao attended a music college in China, but her interest in film continued and landed her in Los Angeles.

She enrolled at Cal State L.A., where she was surrounded by supportive students and faculty members in the Department of Television, Film, and Media Studies.

The mix of students from different disciplines and their creative exchanges mirror what students will experience in the real world. For three years, Gao has been an important part of that mix.

“I learned so much from that entire program,” she says. “A lot of my classmates are just amazing people. A lot of them are professionals in the film industry.”

She developed a passion for filmmaking. That passion is the force behind Thai Elephant Home, a seven-minute documentary that earned Gao top prizes in the 2014 California State University Media Arts Festival. From a field of 170 entries, representing 14 campuses, Gao’s documentary was selected as Best of Show and also received the Rosebud Award (first place) for documentary.

As Gao began exploring ideas for her thesis, elephants kept coming to mind.

She was intrigued by a nagging question: “Are the proprietors of elephant camps and sanctuaries using the elephants to attract tourist dollars, or are they making money to help the elephants?”

For an elephant lover like Gao, the answer mattered---and it was more complex than she’d imagined.

In Thailand, elephants have been domesticated for thousands of years. They once played a vital role in the nation’s logging industry as transporters. But the commercial logging industry was banned in 1989, leaving behind a cadre of workers who were no longer needed, explains Gao.

“That’s why many of the elephants were abandoned,” she says.

Gao decided to film at Thai Elephant Home, a family-operated elephant sanctuary in the mountains of Chiang Mai province. Her crew for the 2013 visit included two classmates.

The crew met people from all over the world who’d traveled to Thailand to spend time with elephants. Those tourists generate money for elephant sanctuaries and parks.

For Gao, who will be receiving her Master of Fine Arts in televion, film and theatre, her time in Thailand left a lasting impression. “We’d shoot until the sun goes down,” she says. “It was amazing.”


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