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First-time filmmaker sets out on new quest

If you set Laura Gatewood adrift in a leaky rowboat with nothing but a dozen safety pins and a roll of cellophane tape, she might not reach the shore.

But you shouldn't bet on it.

She's been alive for 28 years and already has been a competitive equestrienne, instructed African kids in the art of collage, taught monks in Cambodia to roller-skate – without actual skates, a very Zen concept – and tumbled into jobs in New York and Los Angeles with top art entrepreneurs. Resourcefulness comes as naturally to her as melody to a nightingale.

Ask Carmen Melian, her ex-boss and mentor at Sotheby's in New York, if there's anything Gatewood doesn't do well, and she replies, “Laura's not good at stomaching injustice. That's the closest I can get.”

So it should surprise no one that this off-and-on Charlottean is now producing a feature film. “Libertad” is about a Salt Lake City-based detective who travels to his Mexican hometown to exonerate his junkie brother, who has been implicated in a string of murders. There he befriends a homeless boy who's in danger of joining the border town's drug culture.

Here's the cool kicker: The production will shoot in both towns of Nogales, one in Arizona and one in Mexico, using 10 or more at-risk Mexican kids living in an orphanage.

Members of the film crew will train them for three weeks in all sorts of movie jobs. Then they'll be used as production assistants during the shoot and document experiences online.

“My goal is to make a solid film everyone involved can be proud of, and one that exposes the reality of a culture you don't see,” says Gatewood. “These kids search through dumpsters to find salvageable items to earn a dollar a day. They can't stay in school, because they have to earn money. So when someone says, ‘Sniff this glue and you'll forget about your problems,' they do – and if those were my circumstances, I'd be no different.

“This movie is a way to give those kids a chance to dream. It's not meant to save people, but to give them the knowledge that they can save themselves.”

Gatewood has pursued her own dreams with a freewheeling fervor. She stayed in her native Houston through high school, where she imagined herself a future Olympian on horseback. (“I let go of that dream because I could not stop taking my losses to my heart. I did not have the toughness a star athlete needs.”)

Her father's Duke Energy job brought her family to Charlotte; Laura then graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in art history, earned a master's degree in Italian Baroque painting at the Courtauld Institute in London and ended up at Sotheby's in New York under Melian, a specialist in Latin American art.

“She has always been very mature,” says her mentor. “She didn't float down the river, the way a lot of teenagers do. She spent (those) years getting up at 5 in the morning to take care of a horse, ride it, go to school, do homework, get straight A's, try to do social work.

“She's always trying to find beauty in the world. She's one of those people who can plunk flowers in a vase, go tweak-tweak, and they look like they came from the best florist in town. Though she'll always be on some quest, her destiny will be something beautiful.”

Tourist of the world

Many of us might not find beauty in places she traveled after four years at Sotheby's: the Tanzanian village of Amani, where she helped build a workplace for craftswomen stuck in a mud-walled hut, or the South African town of Knysna, where she taught English and arts and crafts. That's where she realized self-expression “can take you SO far in life. Confidence in your creativity multiplies exponentially. And to express that creativity, you have to learn discipline.”

During her world tour, Gatewood realized two other things: She'd have a job with Gagosian Gallery, a prestigious Los Angeles dealer, when it ended. And she wanted to work with disadvantaged kids, of which L.A. has no shortage.

So while she was teaching herself about modern art, she started teaching an Arts Discovery class for elementary schoolers at a place called Venice Arts. There she met writer-director Pablo Toledo, a University of Southern California film school grad who works with such children. He'd made “Runnin' at Midnite,” a 2001 feature about Latino gangs.

When he told her about “Libertad,” his second low-budget indie, she jumped in to help with the Internet site, fundraising parties and other public awareness. They've set up nonprofit status for the project and raised $15,000 of the $67,000 needed to start shooting.

“We're not trying to go through banks,” she says. “We're looking for 6,700 people who will give $100 each. That's a fourth of the way toward a digital camera. Maybe there will be a travel agent who says, ‘I have travel vouchers to get the crew back and forth from Tucson (the shooting base) to L.A.' Or someone who works at Best Buy can donate vouchers to buy wires. We're not going to put the cart before the horse, so we won't shoot until we have the money. But people who don't know us have to trust that there will be a horse.”

Toledo says Gatewood “has a natural talent for working a room and pressing the flesh, which I don't. Laura's strengths are her compassion and ability to keep bringing us back to (the philanthropic) mission. She'll ask, ‘How can this person further the educational (aspects) of the film? How can MySpace help orphans in Nogales?'

“In L.A., everyone in the film business wants to think they know everything. Laura's never afraid to say, ‘Teach me that.' She's also charged up with the joy of being a filmmaker for the first time. We're preaching (in the film) that people need to be positive, and she projects that. You folks in the South made her enjoyable to be around.”