He didn’t have a conventional childhood. That’s typically how Maikaru “Michael” Douangluxay-Cloud of Seattle has described the early years of his life.
“Most of my friends know I was in foster care, my mom was a drug addict and that I had a rough childhood,” Douangluxay-Cloud says.
But then some of those same friends saw a locally-made short documentary film called “Maikaru.” And when a fuller picture of Douangluxay-Cloud’s childhood was revealed, “they were all silent for about an hour afterwards,” he says.
“I realized my childhood was not normal when I was not allowed to tell my friends what I did over the weekend.”
That’s what you hear Douangluxay-Cloud explaining within the first minute of the film.
And what follows in this gripping, poignant seven-minute short is Douangluxay-Cloud looking straight at the camera telling you his own story: his mom was kidnapped at age 12, forced into prostitution and was turned onto heroin. Typically, a child born into a situation like this would be turned over to pedophiles, Douangluxay-Cloud explains in the film. But instead, as a kid, his captors forced him into making crack cocaine. And when mom proves to be a terrible drug dealer, Douangluxay-Cloud takes over and starts dealing crack himself.
He was 7 years old.
Douangluxay-Cloud is 26 now. He’s skinny, with braces on his teeth and a half-short, half-long haircut modeled after some Korean pop star. He’s a University of Washington graduate who’s enrolled in a pre-MBA program at Seattle Pacific University. And the other afternoon, at a café on Capitol Hill, he was online arguing with an airline over a ticket he hoped to purchase to Japan.
What Douangluxay-Cloud doesn’t want, he explained in an interview, is for anyone who sees the film to pity him. That’s partly why he’d never shared his story before.
“I wanted to establish myself as a normal adult,” he says.
But it was while working at the Art Wolfe Gallery and Office that he met co-worker and filmmaker Amanda Harryman. Over lunch, details of his childhood dribbled out. And when she learned more, Harryman knew she’d found a compelling story to capture on film.
For several years in a row, she and a group of friends had consistently participated in one of those speed-making film challenges that invite folks to create a movie from start to finish in a ridiculously short amount of time. In February, Harryman and her team of 13 decided their short would be “Maikaru.”
“Everyone has a story to tell,” says Ruth Gregory, the film’s co-producer and co-editor. “But Maikaru’s story is just a huge one. It was hard for us not to gravitate towards it.”
The filmmakers had 5 days to produce their short. They shot most of it at Shoreline Community College. And while a big part of the film is a close-up of Douangluxay-Cloud talking straight into the camera, they also filmed his shadow dancing behind a screen. Those scenes capture the kidnapping, the death threats against his mom and younger siblings and the general emotional chaos he went through.
Filming his shadow was also a practical choice. “The way he grew up, he didn’t have a lot of photos or videos (of his past),” Gregory says.
In the film, Douangluxay-Cloud talks about being homeless, how he and his younger siblings were forced to watch his mother be sexually assaulted and in one of the most moving scenes, those moments when he felt the happiest and the most free.
We learn about how he and his family escaped. He says it was about having guts and that it was also a miracle of sorts. And by the time the film ends, we get a glimpse of a young man’s dreams: They involve a chandelier.
“My history definitely did not dictate my future,” Douangluxay-Cloud says in the film. And in an interview, in explaining what it’s like to share such a very personal, very harrowing story, he adds: “It’s a big ‘F You’ to the person who did this.”
All Douangluxay-Cloud says about what happened to his captors is that “justice was served.”
“Maikaru” premiered and won accolades at the 2014 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. It also won Best Documentary Short at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. That last award now makes “Maikaru” eligible for an Academy Award nomination.
Maikaru "Michael" Douangluxay-Cloud, Amanda Harryman, Ruth Gregory and Luke Ware celebrating upon winning Best Documentary Short at SIFF 2014. Photo: Ruth Gregory
The film is slated to be part of the One Reel Film Festival at this year’s Bumbershoot. It will also play at the Port Townsend Film Festival in September.
You can watch "Maikaru" online through July 14 as part of the 2014 Doc Challenge competition.
Crosscut's arts coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.