Meet the 2018–2020 Firelight Media Documentary Lab Fellows

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Firelight Media announced their newest cohort of Fellows selected to the Firelight Documentary Lab, the organization’s flagship mentoring program. The group of twelve filmmakers are culturally diverse, with impressive backgrounds ranging from public and commercial media to investigative journalism and digital production. The projects they bring to the fellowship tell stories of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico, domestic violence, federalization of the war on drugs, Indigenous identity, KKK hostilities against Vietnamese refugees, and the mothers left in the wake of police brutality.

“We are honored to support the work of this new Doc Lab cohort because we believe they collectively embody the future of nonfiction — which is inclusive, centers those who have traditionally been on the margins, and pushes the boundaries of the documentary form,” says Vice President and Documentary Lab Director, Loira Limbal.

Over the last decade, the Lab has served seventy-three filmmakers, including award-winning Sabaah Jordan and Damon Davis (Whose Streets), Assia Boundaoui (The Feeling of Being Watched), Dawn Porter (Trapped), Jason Da Silva (When I Walk), and Lyric Cabral ((T)ERROR). Lab fellows have won every major industry award including Peabody, Emmys, Ridenhour, IDA Awards, and have premiered at major festivals including the Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival.

Firelight co-founders Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith launched the Documentary Lab in 2009 as an 18-month fellowship program to support filmmakers working on their first or second feature length documentary film. The Lab provides filmmakers with customized mentorship from prominent leaders in the documentary world, funding, professional development workshops and networking opportunities. In addition, Firelight has provided over $650,000 in grants to 40 documentary projects through their Next Step Fund since 2003.

Get to know more about the new cohort of 2018–2020 Documentary Lab fellows and the projects they’re working on.

Storming Caesars Palace (w.t.) by Hazel Gurland-Pooler

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About Storming Caesars Palace

Primarily led by low-income African American women, The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) challenged sitting presidents, corporations, and everyday Americans to rethink their notions of the “welfare queen” by protesting benefit cuts, boycotting companies, suing the government — and winning — all before national news cameras. For Ruby Duncan, Mary Wesley, and Alversa Beals who lived in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip, welfare reform was taking too long. With the NWRO, they sought to abolish welfare altogether instead proposing a guaranteed annual minimum income for all Americans.

Storming Caesars Palace explores how a group of ordinary mothers launched an extraordinary grassroots movement that fought for economic justice, women’s rights, and black women’s empowerment.

About Hazel Gurland-Pooler

Hazel was born in Bogotá, Colombia and raised in New York City. After graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she worked in long-form television production for ABC News, A&E, PBS/Frontline, HBO, and HISTORY. Hazel Co-Produced two hours of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which was honored with an Emmy, a Peabody, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia baton, and the NAACP Image award. Hazel then Produced Roots: A History Revealed, which was nominated for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary Television and screened at the Bushwick Film Festival in 2016.

In 2017, Hazel produced a five-part, digital-first, short-form docuseries about the daily lives of low-income New Yorkers called, My Everyday Hustle for PBS/WNET’s, multi-platform public media initiative, Chasing the Dream: Poverty & Opportunity in America. Continuing to collaborate with Dr. Gates over the years, Hazel has directed and produced six hours of the celebrity genealogy series Finding Your Roots, with another four episodes scheduled for broadcast beginning in January 2019. Storming Caesars Palace (w.t.), which has received support from ITVS’ Diversity Development Fund and Firelight Media, is her first feature.

Commuted by Nailah Jefferson

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About Commuted

“I’d been visiting prison since I was seven, but I never thought I’d be sentenced to spend my entire life in one,” Danielle Bernard Metz explains to a group of high schoolers. At the age of 26, as a mother of two children under eight, and with no prior arrests or convictions, Danielle was sentenced to triple life plus twenty years for her participation in her husband’s drug ring. She was sent two thousand miles away to Dublin, California to serve out the remainder of her life in federal prison. Twenty -three years later, in August 2016, Danielle’s sentence was commuted under President Obama’s Clemency Initiative. Her commutation, and that of the other nonviolent drug offenders granted clemency along with her, was the first federal acknowledgement of over sentencing during the war on drugs. Now back home in New Orleans, Danielle is trying to find her footing in the free world and reconcile her past regrets with her present. Still trapped in a perpetual prison of guilt for her misdeeds, Danielle is trying to atone for her mistakes by helping to deter young people from following in her same footsteps. She does this by sharing her story as a motivational speaker, counselor and violence interrupter.

COMMUTED is an intimate portrait of Danielle as we follow her on her new path toward redemption, while also looking back and learning how the life of a woman born during a time of great hope became greatly impacted by the federalization and politicizing of crime. We will also explore the larger narrative of what occurred during her generation and the introduction of the war on drugs that birthed mass incarceration. “I never told my son about my sentence. As he got older he read more and figured it out. I remember once calling him and he asked me about it, but he was so confused. ‘How can someone serve triple life,’ he said. ‘You only have one life.’”

In 1994 when Danielle was sentenced, her case was the first federal conspiracy trial, conviction, and life sentence for drugs in Louisiana, but hefty sentences were becoming the norm across the country. The practice would be called “tough on crime,” and although it did not manifest until the 90’s, its origins traced back nearly thirty years earlier. Danielle was born near New Orleans’ progressive Dryades Street district, home to black doctors’ offices, insurance companies and the state’s first black legislator. Danielle’s father was a cement finisher and president of the local union in the district and her mother worked at a bakery. They had dreams of Danielle becoming a nurse, and put in countless hours to see that happen. But, just as her parents were making plans for her, beyond the comforts of Danielle’s loving home, there were legislators and leaders putting in place thinly-veiled racist federal policies that would stifle many of the strides African Americans had made. In 1968 President Nixon’s administration concocted the War on Drugs as a part of a strategy to swing national favor to the Republican Party. It worked, and has bred tough on crime policies and mindsets that helped police, lawmakers, the judiciary and citizens justify aggressive policing and criminalization of Black communities. The arc of the story in Commuted will connect Danielle’s past decisions, her time in prison and her search for redemption after commutation with the historical narrative around federal drug policies, and will ask viewers to envision a world where criminal justice policies reflect the promise of communities, not their inherent punishment.

About Nailah Jefferson

Nailah Jefferson is New Orleans born and bred filmmaker whose films greatly reflects her upbringing and the community that raised her. Nailah’s latest film “Plaquemines,” won the inaugural Create Louisiana $50k Short Film Grant, premiered at the New Orleans Film Festival. It was chosen as an American Black Film Festival HBO Shorts finalist and will premiered on HBO platforms in 2018. Nailah was nominated for a 2017 National Magazine Ellie award for directing Essence Magazine’s “Black Girl Magic Episode 4”. Her debut film, “Vanishing Pearls,” streams on the Urban Movie Channel.

A Town Called Victoria by Li Lu

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About A Town Called Victoria

Hours after the first travel ban takes effect, a mosque in a small Texas town erupts in flames. As details of the arson emerge and a suspect goes to trial, this quiet community must reckon with the deep rifts that drove a man to hate

About Li Lu

Li Lu was born in Suzhou, China, and moved to the US when she was five. Raised on all three coasts, Li graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. THERE IS A NEW WORLD SOMEWHERE, her debut feature, won three Best Feature awards and was distributed theatrically. Her current project, A TOWN CALLED VICTORIA — a documentary about an arson of a Texas mosque — has garnered support from the Sundance Institute, Austin Film Society, and Firelight Media. Her second feature BURY ME ON GOLD MOUNTAIN is in development, and is supported by Film Independent and IFP. She is also a 2018 Fox Directors Lab alumna. A maker of fiction and documentary films, she focuses on work that creates social impact and expands representation of minorities.

Powerlands by Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso

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About Powerlands

Powerlands is a journey through the indigenous struggle to retain their identity, land, and culture through the western worlds search for energy. Indigenous communities across the world are facing climate catastrophe. While there have been several films about climate change, rarely have they been made by indigenous filmmakers from the communities at risk.

About Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso

Ivey Camille Manybeads-Tso is an Award-Winning Diné Filmmaker, Producer, Director, Script-writer, and Actor. She is also a youth mentor, and media arts workshop facilitator. She studied film at the prestigious Idyllwild Arts Academy, and is best known for making the award winning film, In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman, and producing several youth-made documentary projects. She has been focusing on spreading media knowledge throughout indigenous communities for the past five years.

Cosricans by Edwin Martinez

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About Cosricans

Taking place in Puerto Rico during the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Maria, “Cosricans” is a hybrid-documentary feature that explores how a close-knit group of friends recover and reclaim their lives through the art of cosplay.

About Edwin Martinez

Edwin Martinez is a Bronx-born filmmaker whose work has screened theatrically, nationally, internationally and on major television and news outlets including PBS, ESPN, Fox, CBS, and The New York Times. His first feature documentary To Be Heard was named by the New York Times a “critics pick” and “one of the best documentaries of the year.” The film went on to win awards at DOC NYC, Seattle International, Nantucket, San Diego Latino, and Sarasota film festivals among others. Edwin also co-developed and produced El Efecto Clemente, a feature documentary about Roberto Clemente, broadcast internationally by ESPN.

After graduating college as a Gates Millennium Scholar he earned a Master’s in Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He then began work as a cinematographer, on documentary and fiction shorts and features including Rachel Is, Leave No Soldier, Las Martas and Sundance Award Winner What Alice Found. Edwin edited City Of Trees, currently airing on PBS, and Webby Award winning online series The Messy Truth. His most recent film IFP Lab supported Personal Statement premiered as the opening night film of AF Docs (2018). He is currently an Assistant Professor of Film in the SUNY Purchase Film Conservatory.

Border South by Raúl O. Paz Pastrana

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About Border South

Mexico and the United States crack down on the trails north, forcing immigrants into more dangerous territory. Told against the backdrop of the North American migrant trail, “Border South” weaves together migrant stories of resilience and survival from different vantage points. Jason, an anthropologist, collects migrant’s artifacts abandoned in the Arizona desert, preserving them before weather, vultures, and the U.S. border patrol erase their traces forever. Gustavo, a Nicaraguan migrant, survives a Mexican police assault but becomes trapped in a cartel-infested border town in northern Mexico. Groups of Hondurans assemble a vivid portrait of immigrants who disappear along the trail. The film exposes a global migration system that renders human beings invisible in life as well as death.

About Raúl O. Paz Pastrana

Raúl is a Mexican immigrant filmmaker, cinematographer, and multimedia creator. His work intersects contemporary art, political documentary, and visual ethnography to explore themes of belonging and alienation in immigrant communities. His films have screened worldwide, including at the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) in New York City, at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK, and at DocsMX in Mexico City. He is a 2018 Princess Grace Awards Special Project Grantee, an Art Matters/Jerome Foundation Cassis France Arts Fellow, a Tribeca Film Institute All Access grant recipient, and a 2018–19 Ford Foundation, JustFilms grantee.

Duty Free Film by Sian-Pierre Regis

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About Duty Free Film

After working every day of her life to support two kids on one paycheck, a mother is abruptly fired from her job as a hotel housekeeper at 75-years-old. With no savings and no job prospects, her son decides to re-pay her sacrifices by taking her on a bucket-list journey to reclaim her life. He quickly begins to uncover more about his mother’s past and just how uncertain the future is for millions of Americans like her.

About Sian-Pierre Regis

An award-winning journalist, on-camera personality, and cultural citic, Sian-Pierre Regis is is the founder of Swagger.NYC, an online cultural magazine and social media presence for millennials. Previously, Regis created YOU(th) VOTE!, BET Network’s multi-platform initiative that encouraged young voters to participate in the 2008 presidential election. He has worked as a social responsibility and eco-consciousness correspondent for MTV News, an on-camera contributor to CNN, and HLN, and hosted the American Music Awards red carpet. He has also appeared on nearly every major national network and has contributed to news media outlets including Wired, Men’s Journal, Ebony, and Boston Magazine. He is in post-production of Duty Free, a documentary following his mother on a bucket list journey to reclaim her life story after she is fired at 75. The trailer has been seen some 36 million times on Facebook, and featured in People, CBS, ABC, and more.

A Journey Into the Storm by Sandra Salas

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About A Journey Into the Storm

At some point in almost everyone’s life, there comes a challenge so overwhelming, so painful, that it forces a course of action — to run and hide, or to turn and head bravely Into the Storm. For filmmaker Sandra Salas, that defining challenge occurred in the midst of her own family on the day her Father took a gun and killed her Mother and then turned the gun on himself. Into the Storm is the heart-wrenching, inspiring journey of Sandra’s life as she confronts the complexities of the domestic violence that shattered her family and contemplates starting a family of her own.

About Sandra Salas

An award-winning writer, Sandra co-wrote, produced and directed the documentary series TV pilot, Inside Cinema, which features film composer Aaron Zigman, (“The Notebook”), and journeys through his early training, personal experience, and creative collaboration with Nick Cassavetes, and Peter Max, among others. She has written, produced and directed promos and fundraising videos, and has also written shorts and features. Salas has also worked behind the scenes on commercials, promos, films, television shows and print ads. She lived and worked in Singapore teaching screenwriting and script consulting for the Singapore Film Commission and in 2001 received her MFA in Screenwriting at the American Film Institute (AFI), earning many honors and accolades for her work. Sandra is the Director of Post Production at Pop Sugar and manages all of the company’s post needs.

A Place To Learn by Kevin Shaw

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About A Place To Learn

When a successful black elementary school is threatened to be replaced by a new high school that favors the community’s wealthier residents, parents, students and educators fight for the elementary school’s survival.

About Kevin Shaw

As a director, producer and cinematographer, Kevin Shaw has created award-winning content for national television networks. Shaw was a segment director and cinematographer on America to Me, a Participant Media/Kartemquin Films landmark mini-series examining race and education from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steve James. America to Me debuted to high acclaim at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and premiered on Starz in August 2018.

Shaw’s debut documentary, The Street Stops Here, aired nationally on PBS and ESPN in 2010 to rave reviews. The following year, Shaw’s Big Ten Network short documentary on a quadriplegic trying to regain the ability to walk won the Edward R. Murrow Award for Sports Reporting Excellence. His cinematography talents were recognized in 2015 with a National Sports Emmy for ESPN’s FIFA World Cup Show Opens and Teases. Later that year, Shaw produced a documentary about the relationship between megastar Shaquille O’Neal and his collegiate coach, Dale Brown. Shaq and Dale premiered on ESPN.

Shaw graduated from Kartemquin Films Diverse Voices in Documentary (DVID) program in 2018 and was awarded a grant sponsored by the Sage Foundation to continue development on A PLACE TO LEARN.

Black Mothers by Débora Souza Silva

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About Black Mothers

Violence. Outrage. Impunity. Repeat. Black Mothers follows the journey of two women devastated by the agonizing cycle of police brutality and our country’s injustice system. As one mother navigates in the turbulent aftermath of her son’s attack, the other channels her grief into organizing mothers to fight for — and win — concrete change and justice.

About Débora Souza Silva

Débora Souza Silva is a journalist whose work is founded upon examining systemic racism and inequality, while also highlighting the resilience of impacted communities. She started her career as an on-air television reporter and producer in her home country of Brazil, covering stories about race and social inequality. In 2014, Silva graduated with a Masters Degree in Journalism from UC Berkeley; she has since collaborated with several news outlets including PBS, Reveal News, KQED, AJ+, Fusion, OZY, and BBC. In 2015, Silva served as an Associate Producer for the Emmy nominated PBS documentary “Rape on the Night Shift” — an investigation into the sexual abuse of immigrant women in the janitorial industry.

In 2016, Silva was awarded a fellowship with the Center for Investigative Reporting, where she produced a series of short documentaries focused on immigration and social justice. She is a recipient of the 2018 Gracie Award for the four-part documentary series “The Aftermath.” She is also a recipient of the 2018 Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant, the Glassbreaker Films grant as well as the Investigative Reporting Program fellowship, which are supporting the development of her current feature film project, Black Mothers.

A Paradise Lost by Laurie Harue Sumiye

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About A Paradise Lost

A PARADISE LOST is the incredible true story of a bird who sued to prevent its extinction in 1979. Today its survival still hangs in the balance; a Native Hawaiian man strives to save Palila and heal his community after years of conflict between hunters and conservationists.

About Laurie Harue Sumiye

Laurie Sumiye is a Hawai‘i-based artist, animator and documentary filmmaker who investigates environmental tensions between humans and nature. Her background in interactive media and design informs her cross-disciplinary practice in drawing, painting, animation, video, sculpture and installation. She has exhibited her artwork in New York, Los Angeles, Hawai‘i and internationally, in the UK, South Africa and Brazil and screened her award-winning films at DOC NYC, BAM cinemaFest and PS1MoMA. She has an MFA in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College, BA & BS in Art and Communications from Bradley University, and studied art at Lorenzo De Medici in Florence and Pratt Institute in New York. She spent 16 years working as an art director and designer in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. She returned to Hawaiʻi to work on her first long-form documentary, A PARADISE LOST. Laurie serves as Assistant Professor of Creative Media/Transmedia at the University of Hawaiʻi-West O’ahu. She lives and works in Mililani, Hawai‘i.

Seadrift by Tim Tsai

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About Seadrift

On August 3, 1979, a Vietnamese refugee shoots and kills an Anglo crab fisherman at the town docks in Seadrift, TX. What began as a dispute over fishing territory erupted into violence and ignites a maelstrom of boat burnings, KKK intimidation, and other hostilities against Vietnamese refugee communities along the Gulf Coast.

About Tim Tsai

Tim is a Taiwanese American editor/filmmaker, and the executive director of the Austin Asian American Film Festival. He directed KLRU’s oral history series “Austin Revealed: Pioneers from the East,” which profiles some of the earliest Chinese American families to settle in Central Texas. Editorial work include “Yakona” (SXSW ’14 Audience Award), a hybrid non-narrative film about the San Marcos river, available on Sundance Now. He holds an MFA in film and video production from the University of Texas at Austin, and is an associate of the Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program. “Seadrift” is his first feature.


About the Documentary Lab

The Documentary Lab is a mentorship program that seeks out and develops emerging diverse filmmakers. The Lab provides filmmakers with one-on-one support, 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.

About Firelight Media

Firelight Media was born in 2000 to address the deficit of films made by and about diverse communities, particularly people of color. Founded and led by MacArthur “genius” Fellow Stanley Nelson and award-winning writer and philanthropy executive Marcia Smith in Harlem, NY, the organization has gone on to produce over 25 hours of primetime programming for public television, receive every major broadcast award, and have its first theatrical release (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution).

Through our Documentary Lab and Impact Producer Fellowship, Firelight is dedicated to developing talented documentary filmmakers that advance underrepresented stories, moving them from the margins to the forefront of mainstream media through high quality, powerful productions.

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Firelight Media is dedicated to supporting documentary filmmakers of color and cultivating audiences for their work. We’re #changingthestory.

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