Three young filmmakers from Chicago are traveling to France this week to attend the Cannes Film Festival. As they set off on the dream trip, Isis Gullette, Unique Moore and Christal Westmoreland are reflecting on how DePaul University and the Chicago Housing Authority launched their filmmaking dreams.
The three met during the “Become a Filmmaker” program, a six-week summer intensive in DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts, tailored for CHA residents. They have each returned, summer after summer, and were chosen for the trip for their talent and commitment to the craft.
“At the core, the programs are designed to provide youth with new economic pathways and the tools to share their voices with the world,” said Liliane Calfee, a faculty member at DePaul and director of the program. She and others from the university will serve as chaperones and guides.
Chaz Ebert, president and CEO of Ebert Digital and the film criticism website RogerEbert.com, lived in CHA housing as a girl and has been a longtime supporter of Become a Filmmaker. She sparked the idea to send students to film festivals and is co-sponsoring the trip.
“This is the type of transformational experience that breaks the sky wide open for what is possible,” Ebert said. “It is also an opportunity for them to feel that they are welcome and worthy of all spaces, even the most prestigious film festival in the world.”
Along with crowdfunding, DePaul, CHA’s nonprofit partner, Springboard to Success (S2S), and Elevated Films Chicago are sponsoring the trip. Adding to the fairytale, Chicago celebrity designer Barbara Bates will provide each student with a custom red-carpet look. And while the students are looking forward to international adventures (and croissants), their focus is steadfast on filmmaking.
“This trip will be a really good opportunity to see what film could be for me and what type of career I could have,” Gullette said. “As young, Black filmmakers, the universe of possibilities in film for us is so bright.”
Together, the trio recently celebrated the completion of “I Am Not Your Token,” a short film written and co-directed by Gullette, 18. It is the program’s first professionally produced narrative short film; others have been documentaries. Over the course of 16 minutes, a Black high school student’s internal conflict with adapting her identity to keep her place among the popular kids is tested when her ex-best friend becomes the target of their not-so-subtle racism.
Westmoreland, 21, is looking forward to returning to share her Cannes experience with others. “This will be such an incredible boost to me as a filmmaker,” she said. “It will also show my entire community, especially all the little Black girls, that if I can do this, even their wildest dreams can come true."
As a girl, Westmoreland was always writing in journals and loved film. When she was 16, her mother enrolled her in the summer program at DePaul. Now, she is a junior studying film and television in DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts.
“Screenwriting enables me to communicate my personal experiences as a woman of color,” Westmoreland said. “I am motivated by the work of Black filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, and John Singleton who tackle sensitive topics like racism, gun violence, and identity.”
Moore, 18, grew up on Chicago’s South Side and agrees that bringing forward Black voices is one of their main motivations as an artist. “From Spike Lee making way for Black directors to Issa Rae giving voices to dark skinned Black women, I want to be among those filmmakers bringing new perspectives to the screen.”
Since 2016, CHA has partnered with DePaul’s Jarvis College of Computing and Digital Media to offer youth in public housing valuable skills in cinema, game and graphic design. Through the six-week summer intensives, high school-aged students learn from award-winning faculty, receive mentorship from DePaul graduate students and attend field trips to be inspired by Chicago’s rich arts culture. This program is entirely funded, since its inception, by S2S.
“Students in the program learn to look through two lenses—the lens of a camera and the lens of their life experiences,” Calfee said.
Short films made in the program have played in over 20 film festivals worldwide. They’ve garnered multiple awards such as Rising Voice Award at Windy City International Film Festival, Best Documentary at Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival (NYC), Thomas Edison Black Maria Film Festival (New Jersey), and Katra Film Series (NYC), and Best of Chicago award at the Cineyouth Film Festival.
Learn more about Become a Filmmaker online, and follow along with the group’s adventures on Instagram.