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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Ragay

From Military to Art: My Film School Experience as an Air Force Veteran

Michelle, in phases.

At only 27 years old, I find it interesting how all of the people I have met in life know me from completely different eras. First, were my early years as a daughter of an Army soldier living on an American military base in Germany, followed by my rebellious, teenage party years. After Germany, there was my move into the United States as a service member myself and my reputation as a dog mom. Six years later, when COVID affected the entire world, I became a wife and a filmmaker.

In each stage of my life, I have made close connections where every person knows me as someone else, though the essence of who I am has not changed much. I am still heavily guided by my emotions, sentimental and a rejectionist of authority and capitalism. I know that last part makes it even more ironic that I was in the military.

Air Force me, 2016

To me, the most intriguing transformation of mine has been between 2020 and 2023 (now) when I left the Air Force and decided to pursue art as a way of living. This change has felt the most profound but at the same time, the most natural. I have always felt my creative spirit. As a kid, I hated being around other children, and spent most of my elementary days with teachers. I found it pointless to "play." Why would I do that when I can have stimulating conversations and share stories with people who have lived life?

I taught myself how to read and play piano (very basic, but still). I had an active imagination and heard voices. I did very weird shit like collect fingernail clippings and dead animals.

Obviously, my superstitious-religious (funny combo, I know) Filipino parents had to stop a lot of those odd habits, and so my artistic freedom became limited to my extremely vivid dreams and my journals. I no longer hear voices. Decades later, I find out that I had no inner monologue, but that's a story for another time.

Funny child aka me

Joining the Air Force

As I grew up, there was always this internal struggle between fitting in and expressing myself to the fullest. Of course, any teenager wants to feel cool, but I already figured out that my definition of what that was was a little divergent. I did everything. I drank alcohol, I played almost every sport, I took drugs, I tried to do well in school, I went on trips around Europe, I spent quality time with my family and my young siblings, I made friends and wanted people to like me, I listened to all genres of music, mainstream or not, and I had sex and explored my body which, surprising to me at the time, brought a lot of judgment.

High School Michelle, 2011

Once I noticed that the opinions of others had such a huge effect on everyone, I started to think "What the fuck?" And then that conflict within myself became stronger. Why am I so fucking weird? Why can't I just do whatever I want to do? Why can't I live my life without judgment?

Then at 18, I made the biggest conforming move I could make; I joined the military.

And GOD DAMN, did I notice how dissentient I actually was. It's out of my norm, but I had my reasons. I was the oldest child with no example to follow. My friends were moving to the US for university, a country I had very little time in despite being American. My parents were from the Philippines and had no guidance other than joining the military. All I knew was that I did not want to stay where I was, so I took my parents' advice and I joined the Air Force.

Classic Basic Training graduation photo. San Antonio, Texas, 2014

Six years of being obedient (and no weed lol). I knew from the beginning that it was not going to be a lifelong career for me. I honestly did the bare minimum. I showed up to work, did my job, never volunteered and never promoted. I never bought into this idea of "being a part of something bigger than myself." I didn't care. I couldn't stand by that message when I was losing my individuality in the process.

Outside of work, I enjoyed going out and partying with my peers, at first. A few years in, it lost its fun and it became sad. Was that all there was? Work, fitness, toxic relationships, alcohol and cigarettes?

While I waited for my contract with the military to end, I explored. I traveled around the country with my childhood dog, Daisy and documented everything on video, just like I did when I was a kid. I started realizing that what I wanted as a child was what I wanted all along. I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to make movies.

Early YouTube days, Daisy and Me, 2009

Through the last three years, I have learned to accept myself and the idea that being an artist is for me, not just a job, it is who I am as a person and it has been clear my entire life. I see it in the little things like in the way I dress and present myself, the activities I like to do, the music and movies I enjoy consuming, my connection to the natural world and its animals, the type of people I attract and keep and the importance of beauty in my surroundings. Though I say I became a filmmaker recently, this journey of art has been ongoing since I was born. If there is anything I can teach people, as silly and simple as it is, I would want it to be "Be yourself, there really is no one else like you."

As much as I didn't enjoy being in the military, I don't regret it one bit. I loved the opportunity, I am always down to try something new. I love the friends I made. We share a special bond that only comes from military experience. A super fun thing about the military is that it literally gives you friends. Your coworkers become your best friends, whether you like it or not. Anyone who has left can say the same; making friends outside of the military is tough. Community is granted to you whereas anywhere else, you have to find it or make your own.

I learned a new language and the basics of being an adult. I know what it means to be responsible and have commitment. I was able to participate in both healthy and toxic work environments; I know how to work with people. The Air Force gave me valuable skills, for sure. Plus, they paid for my university.

Film School during Covid

As annoyingly defiant as I can be, I will join the crowd in saying 2020 was absolute shit. I separated from the Air Force and I was ready for a grand road trip around the US with my brother and flights to Korea visiting Isaias, which clearly didn't happen. Also, Daisy died which was literally the worst.

I spent a short summer in Texas depressed, scared of the pandemic and planning what to do next. Film school was always the top priority and luckily I found a program in Berlin that was held in English. Coordinating with the VA (Veterans Affairs) to pay for my school was a little frustrating but I eventually made it work.

I chose a school in Germany because I missed living there and though I don't have an actual home, this country definitely comes the closest. I had no experience living in Berlin, but I had a high school friend there and it felt the most international-friendly and beneficial for a future in film.

My move went smoothly. The military pays for the final delivery of your belongings to your "Home of Record" or simply, your home. Since I joined the Air Force from Germany, my Home of Record was Germany and my parents still lived there. I sent all of my shit from the US to their house on the government's dime.

My family helped me bring the essentials to Berlin, which was about a six hour car ride, and into my small studio apartment in Friedrichshain, my new neighborhood or Kiez.

My First Berlin Flat, 2020

Quickly, I learned that my childhood experience as an American military kid in the middle of countryside Bavaria was vastly different from living in Berlin as an adult. My German sucked ass, I knew nothing about the civil obligations and required documentation and it stressed me out. And still, there was the pandemic making life in Germany even more complicated.

My first day of school, I was nervous as hell! What were the other students like? Am I artsy enough to go to film school? Am I going to be the oldest one there?

I rode my bike and arrived 30 minutes early like a true Airman; absolute cringe. The first classmate I met was a Swedish man five years older than me who spent eight years in the Swedish Army. We immediately clicked. Three years later, we are still close and just met for drinks last week.

The first year of film school was way easier than I expected. The classes were designed for young adults fresh out of high school who have no idea what a deadline is and how to study. I sailed through the first year which was mostly online because of the pandemic. I was able to enjoy Europe with my family and maintain the long-distance relationship with Isaias in Korea.

The first project I had that simultaneously challenged and inspired me was my recreation of a scene from American Psycho. I decided to do it Berlin-style. We had a lot of freedom for the assignment so I picked a murder scene and changed the dialogue, the setting and the characters. I wanted to see my own abilities as a director. I underestimated how tough that job was but with the help of a wonderful team, we pulled it off.

After that shoot, I was more than excited to see what I can do in film and wanted to see what opportunities were available outside of school.

Let's Shoot Commercials, baby!

I applied for a lot of jobs outside of university. I learned that my school didn't have the best quality education and that in the artistic world, my Bachelor degree would not matter that much. The military paid for my tuition and rent so I kept my attendance, but I knew I needed more. I took on commercial gigs acting on screen for money but also experience. Then I found myself an internship in film advertising.

Me advertising sex toys, LOL, 2021

My eyes were opened to a whole new world! I loved working with famous brands like Ritter Sport and Telekom. I even had the chance to meet famous soccer/football (whatever you prefer) players. I traveled to different cities just to shoot commercials and saw a shit load of money. I was able to go to fancy restaurants and order the type of drinks and food that student me was avoiding.

I learned professional workflow and communication in the film industry and I truly had fun. Unfortunately, my internship had to come to an end and although I was offered a position at the production company, the terms of my visa did not allow me to do so. I was to focus on school again but that was okay! Isaias had moved to Germany and I knew I wanted to spend more time with him.

My next assignment was a documentary and you can see the completed work above. Already I felt much stronger in my skills as a filmmaker, especially in the realm of production in which my internship helped tremendously.

Finishing Strong through Senioritis

The military pays for three years of higher education. Because I knew this, I took advantage of the accelerated program my school offered which gave me a Bachelor's degree in just two years so I could save one for later. But two years? And I said it was easy? Yes.

I barely had homework; I had projects and deadlines but I knew how to organize my time to make it as relaxed as possible. I was enrolled in an international study program where the working language was English and I was the one of the few Native English speakers in my course. Not to be cocky because I know my English is not the best (exhibit A: my entire blog LOL), but I wrote essays easily and held presentations comfortably because I was confident I knew English better than everyone. Though there was one instance, where I threw together a last minute presentation for a guest instructor and he saw right through me!

His feedback "You are a brilliant, engaging presenter but you are not saying anything at all."

I died inside, hahahaha.

Knowing I could graduate without much difficulty made me a bit lazy, I began to procrastinate and find solutions with little work. I would pop out 20 page papers in a day and admittedly, picked a simple thesis. Like come on, my program was only two years!

But, I wanted most of my focus and energy to be on set, where I truly felt growth as a filmmaker. This is what most industry professionals would say; spend more time on set, don't waste your money on film school. I agree to an extent.

There are some things that are easier to learn in a school environment like film history, editing, how to use certain equipment, movie analysis, etc. I personally enjoyed my screenwriting program and teacher and found his lessons and feedback beneficial, even now. Film school also gives you an embedded network which is always helpful when starting out.

While one does learn from being on a film set, it's not always in the most positive way. In my short time working in this field, I have been on plenty of nightmare sets where all you do is wish for it to be over. Being on set, communication is key and people, as lovely and complex as they are, do not always share the same style of communication. I learned filmmaking on set, yes, but I also sadly witnessed what should not happen on a film set.

What's funny is that during my time in the Air Force, I always complained about working 10 to 12 hour shifts and film shoots are just as long. I also hated authority and structure and found that the best sets respect authority and structure. I guess that's just work in general, but I am happier here in film because I like the motive and outcome a lot better.

My graduation film, Thru, was my baby. This was the shoot I put the most effort into and I loved every second of its birth. I took everything I learned and pulled off what I believe to be one of the smoothest productions I have ever been on. It was the warmest five days of Spring, full of magic and fun for an incredible team of my favorite people. I look back on that shoot fondly. You can watch it below.

I confess that after screening it and seeing it a million times, I have not been the most pleased with the final film, but lately I've learned that in the acceptance of myself as an artist, this includes each phase of my work. Thru is merely a chapter in my journey as a filmmaker and I am proud of it. It marks my time as a student filmmaker and is a representation of the connection I made with everyone I met during film school. This is also partly why I decided to write this post, I wanted to give my film the love it deserves so I can move on fully.

Plus, Thru is silly as hell! That was the point! In my apathy I have forgotten that I am nobody else but me and my work reflects that. I do not try to fit in, so why does my film need to?

The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin, pg. 197

Like everything else in my life, I don't regret my time in film school at all. I had a great time and found opportunities to later work on amazing projects even after graduation. I seriously encourage any military service member with even the tiniest desire to pursue art to just send it and try. I truly believe there is nothing to lose. When life moves at this speed, I don't see why you can't spend your days doing what makes you happy.

And although I say I transitioned from the military to film, it's not entirely true. Being married to Isaias, I have ties to the Air Force and as a veteran, I am still taking full advantage of the benefits the military allows me. It is not something that leaves you, especially being born into it.

Thank you for following my journey! All the love on this day of Mercury-Venus conjunction. <3 Be kind to yourself.

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