Gabrielle Gorman Is Redefining Conventional Ideals of “Pretty"
Beauty isn’t just good looks. On screen, on campus, and with non-profits like NPR and TEDx, LA-based filmmaker-activist Gabrielle Gorman reconsiders conventional ideals of “pretty.” Gorman works on creating poetry and films partly as a way to contemplate her own sense of beauty. Her films show that self-image can be a source of pride or insecurity, belonging or alienation, but overall, a source of empowerment to unite with other women. Dancers from different styles and cultures come together in her films, celebrating the way different bodies can move beautifully together. Luscious spoken word voiceovers honor the beauty of voice. But pretty is also what you do, whether it’s portraying differences on screen or supporting diversity in real life. While her films touch on a range of political issues, they also add that social justice has an intimate side. Besides legal and large-scale social issues, the themes of diversity and feminism exist in our everyday stream of consciousness.
We sat down with Gorman to pick her brain about the highs and lows of being an artist-activist, working across art forms, growing up in Los Angeles, and the meaning of allyship. Gorman was one of seven filmmakers in the national YoungArts program, and attended the 2018 Sundance Film Festival as a YoungArts x Sundance Ignite Fellow. In addition to working with non-profits and directing films, she was featured in a Beautycon Campaign.
Can you tell us a little bit about your last film, Us and Us?
Yeah! So Us and Us started off as a project in my cinematography class. I study Film & Television at UCLA, and I was inspired by the music video for “Papaoutai” by Stromae, which is just like a whole mixture of different cultures and different dance styles. I really wanted to create a piece that could emulate that, but with a female perspective. I brought together 10 or 11 dance friends, and we shot all day on the back lot of UCLA. I was so fortunate to work with so many beautiful, strong and empowered women both on and off set, and it was just a really positive experience to see so many people that committed.
And the poem that you hear, I wrote for a feminist event like a year and a half ago. I wrote it before I started the film, and I didn’t even know if I was going to use it. Once I finished filming I thought it definitely needed that touch, so I decided to do the voiceover with that poem. The poem was originally called “If I Have a Daughter.”
What was it like working with different art forms and even within that, different styles of dance, for the video?
It was amazing. We had like two days of rehearsal and I knew generally what types of dance styles each person was into, and so it was sort of a collaborative effort. I just wanted to give them a lot of leeway, so we just choreographed something together. It was so beautiful, and I hope that people take away from this that beauty lies everywhere within every culture. I really wanted to take this opportunity to showcase how beautiful women are all around the world.
Bodies and physical movement seem to be a frequent theme in your work, like in your documentary short “Untouched Fruit.” Where does the inspiration come from in terms of incorporating movement? Do you have a background in dance?
I do, actually. I have a few years of dance experience, like on and off. My sister and I used to dance at Debbie Allen Dance Academy, and we also danced at Lula Washington…I was in two summers at Contra-Tiempo, which is this LA salsa dance company, so I was definitely doing a lot. I love Nigerian, and I love voguing and waacking and contemporary, and I’ve dipped my toes in flamenco and old school, new school hip hop—all of that, so I definitely have respect for so many different styles.
You mentioned before that your video was inspired by Stromae. What are some of your other visual or musical inspirations?
Oh yeah. I definitely get most of my inspiration from music videos, which is why I’d say I have more of a music video style. When I first got into filmmaking, a lot of it came from Lana del Rey, and I loved how everything looked like it was shot on film—the scratched edges and the lens flares. When I first started making films, a lot of them were emulating that style. Which was actually really cool, because like a year ago I actually got to work on a set with her. It was so awesome to work on a set with someone who has inspired so much of what I do.
Can you talk a little more about collaborating with your sister, Amanda Gorman?
Yeah! Well, Amanda and I did a piece a few months back called “Rise Up As One, California,” and we worked with the California Endowment for the Arts. She did the poetry, and she’s also featured in the video, and I edited the video and got a bunch of thoughts from different people throughout Los Angeles. So we collaborated on that, and we’ve just been doing a lot of things on and off. In high school we were co-presidents of the Black Student Union, and we started the first Black History Month at our school…at one point we had a Flash Mob Club [laughs]. So, yeah, we’ve definitely collaborated on a whole spectrum of projects.
I think when I collaborate with my sister, we both bring different things to the table, which is really beautiful, but at the same time, I think being twins and being artists—there’s a certain amount of space that you want sometimes, which is natural. Whenever we’ve worked together, like when we did the Black Student Union, I would take care of the more creative aspects, and she would take care of the logistics and she would do a lot of the speaking, because I don’t really like to speak in front of large audiences as much as she does. So, you know, I think we both just bring different things.
When you were in high school, how did you fall into film?
I actually got into film through poetry. So in ninth grade, I started to write a lot of poems to document what I was going through emotionally, just coming into myself as a woman—as a black woman—and finding my voice, and I was starting to write poetry to talk about that. I wrote this one poem called “Blossom.” It was actually in one of the WriteGirl anthologies; it’s about these two sunflowers growing together. They go through this huge storm and then one of them dies, but the other one keeps blossoming. I didn’t really realize at the time that I was really talking about me—leaving parts of myself behind—and really just starting to blossom as a human being. And so I sort of made this resolution to make a film, to try and see if it was something that was for me. And so I took this poem and my friends and I went out to this canyon in Topanga that she knew about and just filmed a bunch of crazy stuff, and me running through flowers. I spend a lot longer than I should have editing it, and I had a lot of fun with that. I signed up for my first film class the following year in tenth grade.
Who are some of your favorite poets that inspire your film work?
Honestly, I don’t know if I could say that my film work is inspired by other poets. I think it’s very personal to me, and I think it always tends to come from some poem that I created that really wasn’t even meant to be shared. So, “Blossom” wasn’t really meant to be shared. When I did the film “Dear America”—it wasn’t really a poem, but it was sort of a voiceover that I did and it was about things that I never shared before, and then with “Us and Us” I had this poem that I didn’t really have an intention of doing much with. So I’d say that my films are usually a very intimate experience for me and it’s hard for me to take from someone else’s work, because I think poetry is such a personal process.
Can you talk a little more about the intimacy of your poetry, and the decision to bring that to film and make it more public—even if it wasn’t intended to be that way?
Yeah. I always try to remind myself that we think we’re alone in this world and what we’re going through, but there are so many people that can connect with that. I’m reminded of that with every film I make and every time I share a part of myself that I’ve sort of locked away. And so, I remember when I was making “Dear America,” I went through this huge editor’s block. Like I had filmed the whole thing and I was editing it and I couldn’t even bring my finger to move around the keyboard. So I actually sat down with my sister and she said, “When I have writer’s block, it’s usually because there’s something that I should be saying that I’m not saying. There’s something I’m afraid to say.”
And so then after that I sat down and started talking about my experience feeling like I wasn’t beautiful, like I wasn’t worth it because I’m black and because of the things that make me black, and how I felt alienated in so many different places. People came up to me and said, “I can relate to that because of my gender, or my disability, or my race, or this or that,” and so I came to realize that every time you stand up, there are so many other people that are standing with you.
Yeah. I think you mentioned before—like, allyship. Can you talk about that a little more and what it means to you, and how you approach it filmically?
Yeah. I think allyship has been really important to me. I think it’s important because I’ve always definitely felt like an outsider, so I’ve really empathized with other people who feel like outsiders, and that’s where my love of allyship really comes into place. And so you know when we have experiences feeling overlooked and feeling alienated, sometimes it makes it easier to empathize with people going through the same thing, and so all my work—I think it’s really important right now to not just stand against something but to stand for something, and, I don’t know, that’s just something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I think there are people who are activists and really want to stand against something, and in my work, I try to keep the focus on standing for positivity. Like, let’s stand for allyship, let’s stand for unity, and diversity.
I think it also helps to have grown up around so many different types of people, like where I live. When you go up the street one way, it’s an upper-middle class black neighborhood, but when you go the other way and it’s more working class, and you go the other way, and it’s this whole neighborhood that’s becoming increasingly affluent, and then I went to a school that was mostly white students, so I just grew up around a lot of different types of people.
Can you tell me more about growing up in LA and how that’s impacted the themes in your films or how you shoot?
I went to a very hippie school, especially the high school. I think in a way, it definitely contributed to my insecurity, just being around people whose parents had all this money, and would go on all these vacations, and to get so many opportunities more easily than I could—there’s definitely something about that that I think was very scarring to me. And then at the same time, I had teachers who were always imploring us to disagree with them. And so, I don’t know, in a way I feel very sheltered, now being at UCLA where people don’t always have the same perspectives as I do about social justice and feminism. It’s sort of been a bit of a culture shock, I would say. While my school might not have been the most diverse school, we all share common values about social justice and about positive change. So it was definitely a big shocker to really feel like, okay—like I’ve seen people on Bruin Walk, which is the name of the part of our campus holding signs that are against Muslim women, saying that women belong in the kitchen, and all kinds of really violent expressions. So I think that just pushed me even harder to want to advocate for empathy and social change through my work.
You describe yourself as an activist and a filmmaker. I’m trying to think of a way to phrase this question that’s not reductive, but—I guess, balancing those two things, and maybe can you talk about how they overlap or conflict, or knowing when to respond with the ‘activist’ side versus the ‘artistic’ side?
I think I’ve always found it really hard to work on a film project without it being an expression of my activism. It’s something that I really can’t do. Film is really one of the most influential, if not the most influential platforms. You know, you look at films like Gone with the Wind and Birth of the Nation (the original one) that have inspired so many stereotypes and so much violence in the world, and I feel like as a filmmaker, you really do have a duty to sort of reverse a lot of this images through your work, and that’s why I do what I do.
And I really started to realize through this past year, I began to question my activism because I was thinking I’m just talking about it through film—am I really doing as much as I can? So I tried to get involved with a lot of different clubs and in the political scene on campus, but then I feel like I hit a wall there where I wasn’t happy anymore, and so I think through that I started to realize that activism and creativity were one and the same for me, and it was hard for me to focus on just activism and not really have the chance to create anything.
I guess coming from New Roads, which is my high school, where I felt very supported for my activism, and now I feel like I’ve been in a lot of environments where people think that’s sort of a peculiar thing to be passionate about. But you just gotta keep doing what you’re doing; if I keep putting effort into how people perceive me, then I’m not going to get anything done.
Can you say just a little more about reversing imagery in films that perpetuate negative stereotypes?
Mhm. Yeah, I just—I don’t want to make—I think it’s hard for me to watch films that don’t stand for anything. And I’m not saying that you have to make the next Selma or Twelve Years a Slave, I think even something as simple as creating a character, and then casting a Muslim woman or a black woman, or a Native American woman to be in that role is really powerful. And in Dear America I basically had three people wearing a bunch of labels, and some of them said the n-word, or they would say basketball player, or gangster, or rapist—these were all black students—and then in the video they’re sort of tearing these labels off of each other, and it was sort of my way of taking all of these labels and stereotypes perpetuated not only by the media, but just by people, and showing the world that there’s so much more to us than that. And it’s a very—you almost feel claustrophobic sometimes, at least I do, when you feel like you walk into a room and instantly people feel like they have this perception of who you are. And so I wanted to show this sort of imprisonment that people still feel in 2018 from these preconceived notions that people have.
Can you lastly just talk about some projects you’re working on and what you’ll be doing this forthcoming year?
Well, at the moment I’ve been spending all of my time off this summer doing a lot of writing. I have a thesis that we’re all required to do senior year, and a I wanted it to do a concept for a feature film that I want to do and I’ve spent a lot of time writing that, and it’s always been a very almost therapeutic process for me. And so I’m doing a lot of that, which is interesting because a lot of my films have incorporated a lot of poetry, but not necessarily like screenwriting, so I’ve really found a new passion for that ever since I took a screenwriting class a few semesters ago. And I’ve been working on a bunch of sets; so I worked on a commercial this week, and then I actually was featured in a commercial a few weeks ago, that will be out soon; I think that’s all I can say about it—it’ll be out mid-September. Yeah! And then I’ve been interning at Ava Duvernay’s ARRAY, so really interning under Regina Miller, who’s the interim Executive Director there, so I’ve been spending a lot of time at her campus. I haven’t actually met Ava yet because when I started she was already off to New York for CP5, which is this series she’s doing for Netflix. She definitely is really committed to some of the same things that I am, so it’s really great to work with her and contribute to all of the things that she’s doing.
Featured image courtesy of Amanda Gorman
Stay tuned to Milk for more artists we love.