Seen, Heard, and Understood: A Firelight Documentary Fellow’s Perspective
By April Dobbins
New Orleans is a city that lends itself to lore, defying neat categorization with an unbridled panache — American, European, traditional, progressive. It is a strange, fantastical palimpsest. In so many ways, it was the perfect setting for the Firelight Labs, which brought underrepresented filmmakers together from all walks of life to create a space where we were seen, heard, and understood.
The first topic of conversation with my tablemates during the Firelight Family Dinner centered on the question of whether we would enjoy living out our lives as vampires in a place like New Orleans. We discussed how cool it would be to have immortality in a place with such a deep and storied history, and we joked that we would wear the most dramatic wardrobe from century to century. Before the gumbo arrived, we even did a Carl Van Vechten-inspired photo shoot with the restaurant wallpaper as a backdrop. Then, it got deeper. We mulled over how sad it would be to outlive all the people we love. Immortality sounds like a blessing, but it could also be the ultimate burden. Once someone brought up the ethical dilemma in turning others, I knew I was in the right group.
During the main course, we talked filmmaking, social impact, politics, art, and we laughed so much. At one point, it hit me as I took in the room — I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Without a doubt, I belonged. That sounds corny, I know, but never in my life have I felt such a sense of connectivity and rootedness in a lab setting. The Firelight Documentary Fellowship shifted everything for me.
Weeks prior, I celebrated my acceptance into the lab like a woman who had won the biggest and best lottery. I was elated. Of course it was a great honor, but mostly, I was looking for a fellowship that would help catapult me out of my creative funk. I have been working on my Alabamaland documentary for what seems like forever. It went from being a photography project that spanned years to a film project threatening to do the same. The recent passing of my grandfather — a man who was central to everything I loved in the world, including my documentary — depleted me in ways I could not even articulate.
Over the course of three days with the Firelight Documentary and Impact Lab Fellows, I rediscovered my love for my film and got my creative groove back. Everything from the masterclasses with Stanley Nelson and Nadia Hallgren to the lunch conversations and works-in-progress screenings informed my own work and helped me see a way forward. I learned more than I could ever convey here in words. For me, the most pivotal moment came when Stanley and Loira pulled me aside to discuss my work — a creative intervention of sorts. And Stanley just looked at me and said, “What I am sensing most of all with you is fear. Fear that you will mess up or fail.” And those words hit the nerve and the tears just came. I’ve been grappling with that fear throughout this entire process, and at times, it’s crippled me. And right there at that table, he saw it, called me on it, and told me it was okay to experiment and make mistakes. That whole conversation freed me in a way that nothing else has. So, now I’m back to work — pushing my story forward.
Sitting in that restaurant, where the city’s many layers dovetail in the décor, cuisine, and clientele. Well, what better metaphor for the Firelight model? Here, surrounded by filmmakers as diverse as the city’s influences, I found a new family and learned new ways to be a better storyteller. Documentary filmmaking often feels like a solitary, Sisyphean task. The Lab reinforced that I am not alone in this work and in this struggle. Everything we do to tell our diverse, meaningful truths is valuable. Deep down, I knew that, but Firelight gave me enough inspiration and support to propel me forward.