Shifting the Landscape with Firelight Media’s Impact Producer Fellowship

by Sam Tabet

How did you get here? That was the first question asked to our cohort on day one of our retreat for Firelight Media’s inaugural Impact Producing fellowship.

I came to this fellowship on the heels of a successful exoneration campaign for the first feature film I produced, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four.

Our team’s energy and faith was put into both the film and partnerships with amazing activists and lawyers working alongside us for a shared goal. I came to this fellowship empowered by our success but scared by the central role the film played in justice for human lives. I was concerned that there are not enough films to create the kind of systematic shift we need in this country.

We need to have conversations in our industry around topics such as “what would impact work look like in development and what resources and stories do we need to dismantle systematic oppression?” and those were just two of the many questions we discussed during our first day together.

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All three of our retreats this year took place in the South, which was great for many reasons. The South has a rich history of radical organizing. Often Southern films and communities get left out of the conversation, and while I think the industry has been moving towards more regional diversity, we still have some ways to go. It was an honor to learn from local organizers about the ways films have been useful to their work.

Good organizers take a look at themselves and figure out why they’re coming to this work and what they aim to gain from it. If they don’t, usually the work ends up being exploitative or misses the mark. This is not new to documentary, the field has a long history of colonialism, on top of being under resourced industry, so who gets to tell the story often mirrors the society at large.

There’s no better room to talk about these issues then in a room full of impact producers and filmmakers of color, and that definitely rang true at our retreat in New Orleans.

What I love so much about this cohort is that not all of us were coming from an industry background. Some of us were coming from civil rights work, police organizing, and faith based organizing. It takes a village of activists, filmmakers, and storytellers to get the job done. It takes experience in the field and experience on the ground to know what’s at stake to know how a story will to land.

Watching all of the Our 100 Days series film strung together at the New Orleans Film Festival was a great example of the power organizations and filmmakers and impact producers can have when they work together.

The series of short films was commissioned by Firelight and Field of Vision in response to the first three months of Trumps inauguration. Even though one film cannot dismantle entire system, we are all part of an ecosystem working towards this. I think a big part of dismantling the system is showcasing work created by filmmakers with a variety of identities. I feel inspired by all of the amazing work of the fellows, including the innovative superhero styles of Julien’s The Argus Project and the beauty and wisdom of Tracy’s VR project, Ch’aak’ S’aagi (Eagle Bone).

Independent film can be an isolating field, and industry community is invaluable. Impact producers can bring a project out of isolation and into community, ideally at the beginning stages. As a queer person of color, community has been a vital part of my life since I can remember. It is imperative in the films I decide to be a part of and in the work and organizing I do.

I genuinely believe that the documentary industry is full of brilliant people who really want to change the world. We are working towards a shared vision of the future and trying to figure out how to make that ecosystem thrive in an era with limited arts funding and attacks at every corner. It is important to share resources, build networks, and lift up voices that aren’t being heard. This is why I co-founded the Queer Producers’ Collective, an peer-to-peer network of queer dedicated producers that lifts up queer storytellers and stories, and why the Firelight impact fellowship is so important. Intentional community is so critical for so many of us to heal, grow, and create.

The work Firelight does and the space they provide for filmmakers and producers of color for over 20 years is not only a beacon of light but is essential to shifting the landscape of the industry.

I left this fellowship feeling hopeful. It is astonishing how much power every person I met over this last year in the fellowship and the doc lab holds. When all that power is in one room, you can’t help but be inspired and grateful. It feels amazing to be part of their family.

I’ll truly miss all of my impact producer cohort, our goodbyes were full of love and tears and stories. I also can’t wait to see what magic the next cohort brings, and how each new fellow will build and grow the ecosystem of storytelling and change-making towards the world we want to see.

Sam Tabet is a Brooklyn based creative producer and filmmaker. Most notably Sam produced the Peabody Award Winning and Emmy nominated film SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR, a feature documentary about four Latina lesbians who are wrongfully convicted of gang-raping two little girls during the ’Satanic panic’ era of the 1980’s and 90’s in the United States. The film was cited in the court document which exonerated the ‘San Antonio Four’ after decades of wrongful incarceration. Sam produced short film LOVE THE SINNER (Tribeca 2017) which explores the connection between Christianity and homophobia in the wake of the Pulse shooting. Sam was the assistant producer for the award-winning CALL ME KUCHU (Berlin Film Festival, HotDocs 2012) and produced SIGNIFIED, a multi-media archive of LGBTQ testimony and documentary series featuring the work of queer artists and activists. They previously worked at Chicken & Egg Pictures and hold a B.A. from Connecticut College in Film and Gender studies. Sam is a founder of the Queer Producers Collective, a Firelight Impact Producer fellow, and a Impact Partners Producing fellow.

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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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