Introducing the 2021–2023 Firelight Media Documentary Lab Fellows

Firelight Media
4 min readDec 2, 2021


A composite image of the headshots of the 14 fellows selected for Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab on a gradient orange, red, and purple background, with the words “2021–23 Firelight Media Documentary Lab Fellows” and Firelight Media flame logo.
Introducing the 2021–2023 Firelight Media Documentary Lab Fellows

Firelight Media’s flagship 18-month fellowship program supporting Black, Indigenous, and other filmmakers of color is now in its twelfth year.

Firelight Media today announced the newest cohort of Fellows selected to the Firelight Documentary Lab, the organization’s flagship mentoring program. Beginning with the 2021–23 cohort, Firelight Media is pleased to offer a $25,000 grant for each project accepted into the Documentary Lab, an increase of $10,000 from previous years, to provide much-needed financial support for the in-progress productions.

Firelight Media co-founders Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith launched the Documentary Lab in 2009 as a fellowship program to support filmmakers of color working on their first or second feature length documentary film. Today, the Lab provides filmmakers with funding, customized mentorship from prominent leaders in the documentary world, professional development workshops, and networking opportunities.

The projects the new class brings to the Fellowship include stories of resistance and resilience spanning the globe, with subjects ranging from a young poet from El Salvador, a community of refugee musicians from Vietnam, and a community of activists in Detroit, Michigan fighting for climate justice. The 2021–23 Lab also includes multiple projects centered on formerly incarcerated individuals and their families.

“We are once again impressed by the quality and volume of applications we received to the Documentary Lab this year,” said Firelight Media President Marcia Smith. “Despite the many challenges faced by emerging nonfiction filmmakers of color — particularly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — we are heartened to see that so many filmmakers remain committed to telling their own stories on their own terms. We are especially proud to be able to increase project grants to $25,000 this year, which will have a transformative impact on each of these productions.”

Firelight Media has supported over 100 filmmakers of color through the Documentary Lab over the last 12 years as part of its mission to make the nonfiction film industry — and public media in particular — more inclusive. It has been a banner year for past fellows of the Documentary Lab; recent fellows including Jessica Kingdon (Ascension), C.J. Hunt (The Neutral Ground), and Sian-Pierre Regis (Duty Free) were recently nominated for IDA Awards for their debut features, all of which were produced through the Documentary Lab.

The 2021–2023 Documentary Lab fellows are:

  • Elizabeth Ai, New Wave — A coming-of-age story that celebrates the trailblazers who rebuilt their community and forged a music industry more influential than the one they left behind in the wake of the Vietnam War.
  • Sisa Bueno, For Venida, For Kalief — A late mother’s poetry echoes a movement for criminal justice reform for her son.
  • Ben Corona, Sacrifice Zones: The 48217 — A photographer and other residents living in southwest Detroit challenge a corporation to be more environmentally responsible and purchase their homes.
  • Pati Cruz Martínez, Nació Simón — Nació Simón follows Lis, a single mother of two during the day and drag king Simón at night.
  • Gerardo del Valle, The Past is Waiting Up Ahead — Poet Javier Zamora revisits the route he traveled as an unaccompanied minor twenty years ago.
  • Mohammadreza Eyni and Sara Khaki, Cutting Through Rocks — Film description to come.
  • Contessa Gayles, Life + Life — An incarcerated musician struggles for healing and peace as he comes of age in this documentary-musical odyssey composed behind bars.
  • Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, unseen — A multi-platform documentary that follows the story of Pedro, an aspiring social worker who happens to be a blind, undocumented immigrant.
  • JoeBill Muñoz, Untitled Prison Hunger Strike Film — A group of men look to build new lives after surviving decades of solitary confinement in California prisons.
  • Fiz Olajide, Untitled Underground Railroad Project — Five Black and Latino cyclists traverse a route that helped enslaved people escape to freedom.
  • Ashley Tyner and William Tyner, Untitled — A film following the lives of three Black women leading the movement for Black liberation in the Twin Cities.
  • Xinyan Yu, Made in Ethiopia — Three pioneering women navigate the bumpy expansion of the biggest Chinese industrial zone in Ethiopia. But as conflict threatens to tear the country apart, will their sacrifices be for nothing?

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.-controlled Territories; and the William Greaves Fund for mid-career nonfiction filmmakers from racially and ethnically underrepresented communities. Firelight Media also produces digital short film series, including a newly launched series of regional short films Homegrown (piloted as Hindsight).



Firelight Media

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