When Gabrielle Gorman was a little girl, she had a speech impediment. She couldn't pronounce the letter R, which made saying her own name a challenge. In seventh grade, she decided to harness the power of a secret weapon.
"I’ve always learned through pictures and visuals," she said. "I was a walking camera."
She'd closely watch other people as they talked and play back the images of how their mouths moved in her mind. Eventually she overcame the impediment.
In high school, Gabrielle picked up a real camera and started making films to help her tackle other issues – her tumultuous relationship with her father and her insecurities about being a black woman.
Now, at 18, she's become a passionate cinema artist and she sees film not only a means to process and change her life, but also as a tool to transform the world around her. The stories she's telling are also widely relevant and her films are starting to get noticed across the country.
Gabrielle is a senior at New Roads School in Santa Monica. She's attended the private school since kindergarten. In 11th grade, she made a film that about the negative feelings she says she had about her race, growing up a black girl at school with mostly white students. (New Roads' student body is currently 56 percent white and the rest are students of color. Nearly 13 percent of the students are African-American.)
It's called "Dear America" and it's done in an experimental style, with a montage of imagery set behind a sort of diary confessional.
"When I was younger I used to have this obsession with being anything that wasn’t who I am," the film opens with her narration. "And I didn't know that there was anything wrong with that. I used to hate myself."
"This project was fueled by how my self-esteem was so low when I was in middle school and how I was constantly trying to be this image of beauty and perfection," she explained.
She realized that she wasn't alone and it was important to get her feelings out there.
"I want to share my experience to allow people to look at their own oppression and the ways that they’re labeled," she said. "Because... what I want the most out of my filmmaking is to inspire people to embrace the things that make them different."
The film ends with this message:
Dear America, I hope that one day nobody has to feel the way that I felt, like they are worthless, like they aren’t beautiful, like they’re ugly like they’re never be enough because that’s just a lie. Everybody is enough.
TRAINING WITH THE PROS
"Dear America" has been screened in a few film festivals and won some awards. And Gabrielle was recognized as a winning cinematic arts student by the National YoungArts Foundation. As a winner in the national competition, she went to Miami for a week of training and mentorship from professionals. She also participated in the regional program, YoungArts LA, where she and eight other aspiring filmmakers spent a week with husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Nancy Savoca and Rich Guay.
Ahead of the workshop, Savoca had been very impressed by "Dear America" and she called it a brave film. "When she talked about the making of it, you could see that she put herself out there and that it wasn’t easy," Savoca said. "And that’s the most amazing thing that filmmakers can give us when they give us a piece of themselves."
During their workshop, Guay and Savoca went deep into a small, yet vital part of their work: working with actors.
"Remember that everyone on a crew is making a movie about something else," said Guay.
"And you're letting them in on it," Savoca said, chiming in to finish Guay's sentence.
The teens shot short scenes with professional actors without much prep, and then Guay and Savoca helped them to develop backstories, storyboard shots and perfect a second shoot. The students developed their own visions for shots and created backstories to bring the characters to life.
Since most of Gabrielle's films up to this point have been experimental or documentary style, the workshop was a chance for her to hone a different set of storytelling skills: narrative storytelling. She said valued the experience since it's part of the TV and film landscape that she hopes to change.
"I’d just like to see minorities not always being the funny side character and I’d like to see them in movies where it can just be about romance and it’s not you’re a black person, this is the black experience," Gabrielle said.
Michelle Bernstein, who runs the film and digital media program at Gabrielle's high school, New Roads, was impressed to see the short she made at YoungArts. She taught the first film class Gabrielle ever took in her sophomore year and Bernstein has watched her go. She encourages all of her students to make a way for their vision.
"When I meet a teenager who wants to be a filmmaker, I always tell them that it's important that you have to create your own opportunities," Bernstein said. "If you don’t see yourself being portrayed in the films or you don’t see the stories that you like, you gotta make your own."
She says Gabrielle is an example for other future filmmakers.
"They need to understand that they don’t have to wait for permission to tell their story," said Bernstein. "They should pick up and go tell it now the way Gabrielle’s telling her stories."
Gabrielle is itching to get started and further expand her reel.
When asked about where she sees herself in five years, Gabrielle peered a bit further into the future. "I plan to win at least six Academy Awards by the time I’m 40," she said confidently, then burst into laughter. She admitted that it might sound a bit cocky, but these aren't pipe dreams for her.
She wants to push the envelope in filmmaking like her hero Ava DuVernay has done as a director, and her other role model Hans Zimmer has done as a composer. She also dreams of starting a production company that promotes authentic and positive representations of minorities in the media.
For now, Gabrielle is holding her breath to find out what college she’s gotten into. And as her senior year draws to a close, she’s coping with a case of full-blown senioritis.
"It just gets harder and harder to focus," she said. "I just wish I could focus on film 24/7."
This story has been updated to clarify the demographic makeup of the New Roads student body.