‘Gabe’: On exploring newfound meaning in life
All children want nothing more than to just be a “grown up.” To them, everything looks so much better with age: the combination of freedom and maturity, the ability to choose your own path. And so, they start planning. But what if you knew that the “grown up” part of your life would be cut short at the age of 25?
Gabe Weil, a St. Louis native, faced this reality his whole life. Diagnosed with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy as a toddler, Weil became confined to a wheelchair at the age of 10 and required a caretaker by his mid-teens. Confronting the reality of a lifetime cut short could easily result in apathy or a lack of a will to persevere in the toughest of circumstances, but Weil strove to do the unexpected: to live life with intention. In December 2013, at the age of 25, Weil graduated from Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
During his time at Wash. U., Weil required the assistance of others to help him in class. In 2011, fellow Wash. U. student Luke Terrell applied and interviewed to be Weil’s notetaker: He would go to all of Weil’s classes with him, take notes and help him interact with teachers and other students.
Terrell graduated in May 2013, but remained in St. Louis for Weil’s final semester of school. Nearing the end of his college career, Weil had a doctor’s appointment that turned his world perspective on its head; not only did the diagnosis change the specific form of muscular dystrophy Weil had lived his whole life with but his new diagnosis resulted in a major change—he was now projected to live to the age of 50. The doctors were confused, his family was astonished and Weil, more than anyone, was dumbstruck.
What do you do when you’re handed 25 more years of extra time? How do you plan for something you never expected to live to experience?
With this new understanding, Weil asked Terrell to begin filming the moments of his life that he never anticipated accomplishing. Slowly, the project grew. Through filming with Weil and a mentorship with a Wash. U. alum working as a documentary director, Terrell became interested in becoming a filmmaker professionally, and the project that started as a collection of home videos expanded into a much bigger production.
“It started very organically. There was never a point where I was like, ‘I need to make a movie, what can I make a movie about?’ It was like one step at a time,” Terrell said. “Gabe really embraced it in most ways. With any unscripted documentary, you have to go in with an open mind, not knowing where the story is going to lead. That was the case in starting this project: We were at this very unique juncture in a man’s life and we wanted to see what he did next.”
Terrell, director and producer of the now-completed documentary, appropriately titled “Gabe,” feels the film became a part of the journey for Weil as he entered into this new stage of his life, rather than just a testimony to the journey itself.
“We had a lot of talks at the beginning of the filmmaking process where Gabe would say, ‘People come up to me, they don’t know me, and they tell me I inspire them and I don’t get it. Is that them pitying me?’” Terrell said. “And so part of the filmmaking process results in this journey of self-discovery and trying to find out from where that inspiration derives.”
Throughout filming, Weil began to formulate what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Through this formulation, he began to build a future he didn’t think he would ever get to have, centered on his ability to share his story. After graduating from Wash. U., Weil delivered a lecture at Kuumba Talks, a student group founded by Terrell while he attended Wash. U.
“Dear muscular dystrophy,” the speech begins, “Certainly you’ve made most aspects of my life more challenging, but if life were easy, it wouldn’t be interesting. The low points in life are what allow me to fully appreciate the small things.”
The first home movies—now sprinkled throughout the final film—were collected in November 2013, shortly after Weil received his new prognosis. Filming—a lot of which occurs within the University community—progressed for about a year, with editing and the production aspects continuing for several months after.
“It’s a very Wash. U.-centric film…St. Louis is a story, Wash. U. is a player,” Terrell said. “In terms of the filmmaking team, there are 15 Wash. U. credited contributors ranging from illustrators to the composer to the executive producer to me being the producer and director, and so Wash. U.’s fingerprints are all over it.”
However, above all, the film is a story of purpose, of living life open-mindedly and of prioritizing our trust in and acceptance of others.
“I hope that when people see the film they leave with that same sentiment, that Gabe lived a life of intention and lived his life really well, and I hope we can all take a page out of his book and do that,” Terrell said. “To not write off others that are different from us because of those differences.”
The final open public screening of the documentary will take place Friday, Nov. 3 at 11:30 a.m. in Seigle Hall, Room L004, and will feature a talk and meet and greet with director Luke Terrell. Additionally, “Gabe” will be screened Friday, Nov. 3 through the St. Louis International Film Festival at 7:30 p.m. at .ZACK, and tickets can be purchased online.‘Gabe’: Living life with intention.