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One Year Out: Documentary Filmmaker Elena Gaby ’13

It just doesn’t get much more spectacular than this:  Almost exactly a year after graduating from Vassar with honors in film, Elena Gaby ’13 found herself on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival along with her crew  as their senior project, Paper State: Undocumented, Unafraid, Undeterred, was named Best Student Documentary at the American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase.

Elena Gaby ’13 in Manaus, Brazil, shooting footage of the Amazon River

That’s kind of a hard act to follow.  Where does an aspiring filmmaker go from there?

“Back to work!” says Gaby, who is living in New York City, chasing freelance opportunities, and waitressing at a sports bar to close the gap.  “Sometimes I’ll just be sitting at home waiting for the next thing and taking some time to clean the apartment, and then the next day I’ll get three emails from people saying I know somebody who knows somebody who’s looking for somebody that sounds like you,” she says. “Sometimes there are weeks when I don’t get work, and sometimes there are months where I work every single day.  I really like the independence, and I really like the flexibility.  If I’m in a dry spell and I get panicky, I just take extra shifts at the restaurant, and then I’m fine.”

Right after Vassar, she had an internship at Warrior Poets, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s production company.  It was the first of several opportunities that have opened up through Vassar connections.  Spurlock’s production manager at the time was Vassar alum Sebastian Weinberg ’09. Weinberg was invited to come back to campus for an alumnae/i panel about careers in film and television, and Gaby was tapped to drive the alums to the train station after the event.  She clearly must have impressed Weinberg because he offered her a three-day-a-week internship for the summer.

That internship—“kind of a general office intern, running around and getting things for people”—led to a second full-time internship as a researcher on Spurlock’s CNN Inside Man series, which then became a six-month job where she was doing pre-production work, including some casting, fact checking, scouting locations, and the like. “From the references I got by having a solid base with that one company, I’ve been able to get other work.”

Another recent job—a three-week gig working on a new show called The Hunt with John Walsh—was also the result of a Vassar connection, alumna Amanda Messenger ‘12. “Whenever you meet somebody working in the industry who is a Vassar person, you just click right away.  It’s like—we’re there to help each other.  It’s like a brotherhood, which is awesome.  It’s definitely opened a lot of doors.”  

While Gaby is definitely feeling upbeat about the way things are going now, she says the transition from Vassar to the “real world” was one of the hardest she’s experienced. “When you graduate, you’re going from a huge amount of stimulus—I did two thesis projects, I had a full schedule, plus extracurriculars, plus living with all of your friends.  And then all of the sudden, I was living at home, interning three days a week, and commuting five hours a day to get to that internship.  So it was harsh, really harsh.  I didn’t know how to get where I wanted to be.  I felt like everything needed to happen faster, and it wasn’t.  And a lot of my friends were going through the same thing.”

Around December, she says, the pieces started to fall into place. “I was planning to move into the city eventually anyway, and I figured out how to make it work, between the waitressing and the internship.  And then they called me in to be a full-time researcher on the next project.  The ultimate goal for me is to keep making nonfiction, and hopefully someday directing nonfiction.  That’s really what I’m passionate about.  But at this point in my career, if you asked me if I want to produce, if I want to shoot, if I want to write,  I’d tell you, basically, whatever I get the opportunity to do, I’m chasing.”

And while she may not be passionate about waitressing, she says it’s fun. “It’s really hard work. I’ve actually never been as stressed on a film job as I have been when the restaurant is swamped and we’re understaffed.  But the girls that work there are awesome, so it’s all about the camaraderie of the staff.  The other day, I had a day between jobs, so I sent out an email asking if anybody wanted me to cover their shift, and sure enough they did.  So we cover for each other and help each other out, and the managers understand that.  As long as somebody shows up to work, they’re okay with it.”

--Julia Van Develder

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, August 4, 2014