Meet the 2019–2021 Firelight Media Documentary Lab Fellows

Firelight Media announced today their newest cohort of Fellows selected to the Firelight Documentary Lab, the organization’s flagship mentoring program which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The group of 12 filmmakers are culturally diverse, with impressive backgrounds ranging from public media, cultural promotion, and community organizing to investigative journalism and anthropology. Several new fellows will also be in attendance at the Documentary Lab’s 10th Anniversary Gala tonight (November 7) in Harlem, NY. The event will cap off a banner year for the program, celebrating the Doc Lab’s growth and accomplishments in the last decade, and fundraising to help expand Firelight’s continuing work to support and develop documentary filmmakers of color.

Firelight co-founders Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith launched the Documentary Lab in 2009 as a fellowship program to support diverse filmmakers working on their first or second feature length documentary film. Today, 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 its Next Step Fund since 2003. this year, Firelight announced a grant of $15,000 for each filmmaker accepted into the Lab.

The projects the new class bring to the Fellowship range from stories of China’s industrial supply chain through its accelerated economy, to the legacy of land and inheritance along the Santee river in South Carolina — from healing intergenerational family trauma, to a community of women truck drivers organizing in the time of the Me Too movement.

“This cohort embodies the very best of documentary films and tells the vital stories of our day from a diversity of perspectives, regions, and cinematic language. We are incredibly excited to welcome them into the Firelight family,” says Vice President and Documentary Lab Director, Loira Limbal.

Over the last decade, Firelight has supported the voices and careers of over 120 filmmakers of color, including award-winning Jackie Olive (Always in Season), PJ Raval (Call Her Ganda), Cristina Ibarra (The Infiltrators), Chelsea Hernandez (Building the American Dream) and Jeff Palmer (Words from a Bear). Lab fellows have won every major industry award including Peabody, Emmy, Ridenhour, and IDA Awards, and have premiered at major 2019 film festivals including Sundance, Tribeca, Hot Docs, Full Frame, and AFI Docs.

Get to know more about the new cohort of 2019–2021 Documentary Lab fellows and the projects they’re working on.

Drowned Land by Colleen Thurston

Colleen Thurston is a media producer and film programmer from Tulsa, Oklahoma and holds a position as Assistant Professor of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas. She earned a B.A. from the University of Arizona in Media Arts and Anthropology, and completed her Masters of Fine Arts in Documentary Filmmaking at Montana State University. Specializing in non-fiction production, she has worked for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Channel. She also produced short documentaries for four seasons of the Cherokee Nation’s series, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People,” earning two Emmy awards for her work as a producer and writer for the show. Colleen is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a seventh generation Oklahoman.

About Drowned Land

Oklahoma is a land of scenic lakes, ideal for recreation and weekend getaways. But these lakes are man-made, a result of the federal government flooding private property and the forced displacement of the people who called the lands beneath home.

Buffalo Soldiers of the Pacific Northwest by Dru Holley

Dru Holley is a producer/director from Denver, Colorado, and currently living in the pacific northwest. Dru is attuned to the direction of Black films and its future; he’s invested in learning just about every part of creating entertaining and informative media, from production assistant to director. His most recent work includes short films and promotional web content, and his goal is to focus on African American history documentaries and feature film. Dru is a graduate of the Art Institute of Colorado where he specialized in video broadcasting.

About Buffalo Soldiers of the Pacific Northwest

The film follows the story of African-American soldiers who served between the Civil War and the 20th century and their impact in the Pacific Northwest.

Fruits of Labor by Emily Cohen Ibañez

Emily Cohen Ibañez is a Colombian-American filmmaker who earned her doctorate in Anthropology (2011) with a certificate in Culture and Media at New York University. Her film work pairs lyricism with social activism, advocating for labor, environmental, and health justice. Her debut feature documentary BODIES AT WAR/MINA (2015) premiered at El Festival de Cine de Bogotá where it was nominated for a UNICEF award. Her short films premiered at Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, Society for Visual Anthropology, and the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco. The National Science Foundation, Fulbright, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, BAVC National Media Maker, JustFilms Ford Foundation, California Humanities, and SFFILM FilmHouse Residency Program amongst others have supported her work.

About Fruits of Labor

A Mexican-American teenager dreams of graduating high school when increased ICE raids in her community threaten to separate her family and force her to become the breadwinner.

Silent Beauty by Jasmin Mara López

Jasmin Mara López is a journalist, audio producer and filmmaker. Born in the U.S. with familial roots in México, her childhood was affected by issues experienced on both sides of the U.S.- México border. This instilled in her a strong passion for immigrant rights, youth empowerment, and social change. She received the Society of Professional Journalists’ Excellence in Journalism Award for her audio documentary Deadly Divide: Migrant Death on the Border, and has garnered support for her film Silent Beauty from organizations like Chicken & Egg Pictures, New Orleans Film Society, The Southern Documentary Fund, and Black Public Media.

About Silent Beauty

An autobiographical exploration of the filmmaker’s family history with child sexual abuse and a culture of silence.

Untitled PRC Project by Jessica Kingdon

JESSICA KINGDON is a Chinese-American director/producer named one of 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine in 2017. Her upcoming feature documentary UNTITLED PRC PROJECT received support from SFFILM, Chicken & Egg, Cinereach, Sundance, and Field of Vision. Her award-winning Vimeo Staff Pick short “Commodity City” (2017) played at over 50 film festivals. Her short “Routine Island” (2019) is an Eyeslicer Radical Film Fund recipient and is on Eyeslicer Season 2.

About Untitled PRC Project

A portrait of China’s industrial supply chain through its accelerated economy in an increasingly consumer driven yet repressive society.

After Sherman by Jon Sesrie Goff

Jon- Sesrie Goff is a multidisciplinary artist, curator, and arts administrator. Jon has offered his lens to a variety of projects spanning many genres including the award- winning documentaries, including Spit on the Broom (Black Public Media 2019), Out in the Night (POV, Logo 2015) and Evolution of a Criminal (Independent Lens 2015). Jon is currently the Executive Director of the Flaherty and previously served as the Museum Specialist for Film at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.

About After Sherman

A story about inheritance and the tension that defines our collective American history. The film explores coastal South Carolina as a site of pride and racial trauma through Gullah cultural retention and land preservation.

BARTOLO by Leandro Fabrizi

Fabrizi Ríos was Director, Producer, and Cinematographer on a 10 one-hour episode series called Zona Franca, which was broadcast on Puerto Rico’s public television outlet (WIPR). He has collaborated as a cinematographer with artist Allora Calzadilla for their works, Puertorican light, and The Great Silence. Since 2017, Leandro Fabrizi is also the video journalist for the Center for Investigative Journalism, who has been behind the most in-depth reports on Puerto Rico’s debt and fiscal crisis. For three years, Leandro presided APCA, an association of audiovisual producers in Puerto Rico. He also represented Puerto Rico as a member of the Ibero-American Federation of Cinematographic and Audiovisual Producers (FIPCA) for two years. A native of Puerto Rico, Fabrizi obtained a Master’s in Creative Documentary from Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona in 2005. His thesis project, Ecos de Masía (26-mins), was broadcast on Televisión de Barcelona (BTV).


In a rural town, tucked in the mountains of Lares, Puerto Rico, ten families decide to move into an abandoned school building and transform it into their new living quarters.

Changing State: Black Diplomats, Civil Rights, and the Cold War by Leola Calzolai-Stewart

Leola Calzolai-Stewart is the co-founder of the Virginia-based production company FLOWSTATE Films where she currently directs and co-produces the historical documentary CHANGING STATE: BLACK DIPLOMATS, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND THE COLD WAR. The film explores the untold story of three African-American diplomats representing the United States overseas at the height of the civil rights movement and the Cold War. The project received support from Black Public Media, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and is Leola’s directorial debut. Leola previously edited the feature documentaries THE LAST SONG BEFORE THE WAR, distributed by Kino Smith, and DEAR WALMART which premiered in 2019 and is distributed by Virgil Films. Born and raised in San Francisco, Leola has an MA in International Affairs from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and she studied film in South Africa at Tshwane University of Technology.

About Changing State: Black Diplomats, Civil Rights, and the Cold War

The film depicts the fight for inclusion in American diplomacy as told through the lives of three African-American ambassadors: Edward R. Dudley, Terence Todman, and Carl Rowan.

DRIVER by Nesa Azimi

Nesa Azimi (Director & Producer) is a New York City-based filmmaker with nearly a decade of experience in long-form broadcast production, having worked on over a dozen socially-driven, current affairs documentaries. Her subjects have ranged from an investigation of Firestone’s dealings with war criminal Charles Taylor during the Liberian Civil War, to Resignation Syndrome — an inexplicable medical condition afflicting the children of asylum seekers in Sweden. She started out as an intern at The Maysles Documentary Center and has since been on staff as a producer and associate with Rain Media for FRONTLINE PBS, Fault Lines on Al Jazeera, National Geographic, and the Ciné Institute of Haiti. Her work at FRONTLINE was recognized with two Emmy Awards, four Emmy nominations, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. She is a fellow with the Points North Institute ’19 and the Firelight Documentary Lab ’19 — ’21. DRIVER, which received the Points North Pitch Award at the Camden International Film Festival ’19, will be her first feature film.


The documentary immerses us in a community of women truck drivers. Threatened by routine sexual violence and bound by a system where multi-billion dollar megacarriers and oppressive regulatory regimes conspire to leave the individual driver powerless and disposable — Desiree and her fellow drivers band together to survive.

Mini & Vivi by Patrick G. Lee

Patrick G. Lee (he/they) is a queer Korean American documentary filmmaker, writer, and community organizer. He’s interested in building collaborative, community-based approaches to filmmaking that reject traditional hierarchies of authority and that equip queer and trans people of color with media-making skills. Patrick has made films about Asian American coming out stories, LGBTQ self- representation, and queer Asian history. His reporting has appeared online for ProPublica, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and more. In 2018, Patrick helped organize KQTcon, the first national Korean queer and trans conference in the US.

About Mini & Vivi

The film follows a charismatic, long-distance friendship between two trans women as a way to explore the possibilities for queer solidarity across the Korean diaspora — and the nation-state violence and cultural misperceptions that necessitate it.

Schools’ Challenge Quiz by Sasha-Gay Lewis

Sasha-Gay is an award-winning Jamaican documentary filmmaker, producer and writer. Her short film The Incursion won Best Documentary at the Caribbean Tales Film Festival, Best Documentary Short at the Los Angeles Film and Script Festival, Honourable Mention at DOC LA, an Award of Recognition at Impact Docs, and was an official selection at the prestigious 2018 Pan Africa Film Festival. Similarly, her film The People’s Vision was an official selection of the American Institute of Architects I Look Up Film Challenge. Sasha was a producer on the docu-series Where Cultures Collide, which was nationally distributed on KCET, and a coordinator on the Gemini Award nominated doc series Life’s Rituals. Her work has received widespread press exposure by a variety of sources such as,, the Jamaica Gleaner, and Caribbean National Weekly.

About Schools’ Challenge Quiz

The documentary follows a group of Jamaican high school students, their families and communities as they prepare and compete in a battle of will and intellect on a televised quiz show.

The Road to Sabarimala by Shilpa Kunnappillil

Shilpa Kunnappillil is an Indian-American documentary filmmaker and editor based in Brooklyn. In her films, she explores womanhood through stories of identity, family, and culture, specifically focusing on South Asian communities. She is a 2019 NeXt Doc Fellow and winner of Fusion Film Festival’s documentary pitch competition. She is also a recent graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

About The Road to Sabarimala

An exploration of the shifting perspectives of Indian women as their traditions come into conflict with their rights. The film follows three women who risk their lives to enter the sacred Hindu temple of Sabarimala, amidst an exceedingly dangerous political climate.


About the Documentary Lab
Firelight Media is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting emerging documentary filmmakers who tell stories about communities and issues that are underrepresented in the mainstream media. Firelight’s programs include the Documentary Lab, an 18-month fellowship that supports emerging filmmakers of color; and Groundwork, a program that supports early stage filmmakers in the American south, midwest, and U.S. Territories. In addition to a focus on excellence in filmmaking, Firelight develops strategies to reach and engage diverse audiences.



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