Gabriela McNicoll (M.A.’20), is no stranger to Georgia State University. Her life as a Panther started in 2004 as a full-time staff member in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Office working on International Program Development and continued as a data administrator in the College of Education and Human Development. A vested employee within the University System of Georgia, McNicoll decided later in life to pivot and pursue her artistic passion for film. The sudden and untimely passing of her mother was a life-changing event; one that would set her on course for a graduate degree in Film, Video and Digital Imaging. A novice to the world of film production, McNicoll wrote and served as executive producer on her first-ever film, a southern gothic narrative about the death of her mother made possible through the very life insurance benefit her mother secured to bequeath her children a legacy.
“I needed a way to purge the grief,” says Gabriela of her journey into film. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I applied to the grad program in 2017 because I wanted to have a better foundation for my filmmaking. This was my second chance.” That second chance not only earned her acceptance into the graduate program but garnered her a win in last year’s Georgia State University Student Film Festival and a screenplay finalist spot in the 2020 Atlanta Film Festival for her thesis project entitled “HAINT.”
This second chance, however, did not come void of challenges. McNicoll acknowledges that returning to school while being a mother, a wife and working full-time took a serious toll on her. “I was an older student,” she explains. “So I constantly felt like I was an imposter. Feeling that way forced me to work as hard as I could, learn more and take advantage of every resource available to me. I think when you are older, you have a tendency to do that.”
McNicoll credits a team of supportive production faculty, her supervisor and a select group of graduate students/crew who helped her navigate through the program and maintain her sanity. “I was fortunate to have an advocate and supporter in Dr. Joyce Many,” McNicoll recounts. “Having friends in the program like Mo Morgan, Jean Burset, Anna Norman, Jade McDonald and Gabriella Lavatai also helped me get through.”
McNicoll learned to develop her creative eye by pulling upon those things she holds dear. Family, relationships, interconnectedness and southern roots are recurring themes that permeate throughout her work. Her latest project, currently on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is her thesis film project “HAINT ,” a southern gothic narrative interwoven with elements of magical realism. The story follows a little girl and her best friend as they build a bottle tree to catch whatever is haunting her neglectful mother.
Her thesis committee served as both advisors and mentors, and she credits Daniel Robin, Dr. Alessandra Raengo, Dr. Aggie Bazaz and Ly Bolia with helping her acquire the tools she needed for a solid foundation in filmmaking. “They were incredibly supportive, encouraging and accessible,” she says. Courses in Advance Film Theory, Cinematography and Producing Documentaries all fortified Gabriela’s firm grasp on filmmaking as both a studies discipline and an art form.
Pursuing her advanced degree has unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit in McNicoll, and as a result she has teamed up with Atlanta-based filmmaker and producer Dana E. Salter to jointly create GDMF Productions. This production company specializes in creating films that tell the story of the American south. In McNicoll’s own words: “I consider myself a southern woman filmmaker.”
Gabriela’s second chance to change her life and pursue her passion for filmmaking required her to push herself beyond her insecurities. “I had something to say, but I needed that knowledge base in order to feel confident,” she says, reflecting on her many lessons learned. “The tools I gained in the Georgia State film program helped me silence my imposter.”