Behind the Scenes at Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab Retreat

Firelight Media
5 min readJun 21, 2023

Firelight Media recently hosted a retreat for our 2021–2023 Documentary Lab Fellows in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Left to right: 2021–2023 Documentary Lab Fellows Sisa Bueno, Ashley Tyner, Ben Corona, Contessa Gayles, Mohammad Reza Eyni, Xinyan Yu, Elizabeth Ai, JoeBill Muñoz, Sara Khaki, Fiz Olajide, Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, Pati Cruz Martínez, and William Tyner. All photographs by Camille Barnett @camillembarnett.

Firelight Media recently hosted a Documentary Lab Retreat for the 2021–2023 Fellows at the Ace Hotel in New Orleans, centered around independent documentary distribution and impact. The retreat brought together Fellows Sisa Bueno, Ashley Tyner, Ben Corona, Contessa Gayles, Mohammad Reza Eyni, Xinyan Yu, Elizabeth Ai, JoeBill Muñoz, Sara Khaki, Fiz Olajide, Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, Pati Cruz Martínez, Gerardo del Valle, and William Tyner, along with Firelight Media staff: the new Documentary Lab Director Lucy Mukerjee, outgoing Interim Director Sabaah Folayan, Firelight Media President Marcia Smith, SVP Leticia Peguero, Artist Program Manager Ximena Amescua Cuenca, and Artist Programs Coordinator Antonia Thornton.

Left: Sabaah Folayan and Lucy Mukerjee; Right: Antonia Thornton
Left: Lucy Mukerjee; Right: Leticia Peguero

On the first day of the retreat, Documentary Lab alumni Sonia Kennebeck (Enemies of the State, National Bird) and Sabaah Folayan (Whose Streets?, LOOK AT ME: XXXTentacion) joined the fellows for a candid discussion about their experiences with distributing independent documentaries.

Later, the filmmakers assembled for a works-in-progress screening and discussion of their films, in which Asad Muhammad, VP of Impact and Engagement Strategy at American Documentary/POV; filmmaker Jacqueline Olive, an alumna of Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab and FRONTLINE/Firelight Fellowship (Death Is Our Business); Jess Devaney, Founder & President of Multitude Films; Chloe Gbai, Manager of Original Documentary Films at Netflix; and writer/producer Lauren Domino.

The distribution conversation continued on day two, when special guests Jess Devaney, Chloe Gbai, and Lucy Mukerjee, Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab Director, joined the fellows to discuss the current distribution landscape.

Documentary Lab Fellows and special guests at the Doc Lab Reception in New Orleans.

Day two continued with a screening of the Documentary Lab Fellows’ work-in-progress, with feedback from their peers as well as Asad Muhammad, Jacqueline Olive, Jess Devaney, and Chloe Gbai.

For day three of the retreat, American Documentary/POV’s Asad Muhammad returned to discuss how distribution plans can support impact campaigns, ensuring that documentaries reach the audiences represented in and impacted by the films. The day continued with part two of the works-in-progress screening, this time featuring feedback from filmmaker Angela Tucker, a Firelight William Greaves Research & Development Fund grantee; filmmaker Jacqueline Olive; and Clint Bowie, Artistic Director of the New Orleans Film Society.

Documentary Lab Fellows and staff at the Doc Lab reception.

Finally, in the evening, Firelight Media hosted a Documentary Lab reception which included Documentary Lab alumni in the New Orleans area as well as local partners.

The final day of the retreat featured a case study on running a successful impact campaign featuring Courtney Symone Staton, Impact Producer of The Neutral Ground (directed by Documentary Lab alum and Impact Campaign Fund grantee C.J.Hunt), and the film’s producer, Darcy McKinnon.

About Firelight Media

Firelight Media is a premier destination for non-fiction cinema by and about communities of color. Firelight Media produces documentary films, supports filmmakers of color, and cultivates audiences for their work. Firelight Media’s programs include the Documentary Lab, an 18-month fellowship that supports emerging filmmakers of color; Groundwork Regional Lab, which supports filmmakers in the American south, midwest, and U.S. territories; and the William Greaves Fund Research & Development Fund for mid-career nonfiction filmmakers of color. Firelight Media also produces digital short film series, including In the Making, with American Masters, and Homegrown: Future Visions, in collaboration with the Center for Asian American Media, for PBS.

About the Documentary Lab

Firelight Media’s flagship Documentary Lab seeks out and develops emerging filmmakers of color who make artful and innovative nonfiction films. The 18-month Documentary Lab provides filmmakers with customized mentorship from prominent leaders in the documentary world, as well as funding, professional development workshops, and networking opportunities. More than just a workshop, the Documentary Lab is unrivaled in its representation of diverse filmmakers, creating an exclusive network of talented, unique storytellers that receive ongoing support from a project’s conception to its completion. Over the last decade, the Documentary Lab grew from a mentorship program to a robust artist development initiative that has supported over 100 emerging filmmakers, and granted over $600k toward productions and distribution.



Firelight Media

Firelight Media is a nonprofit organization that supports, resources, and advocates on behalf of documentary filmmakers of color.