Trust the Work is Meaningful: Reflections from Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab Retreat

By Antonia Thornton, Artist Programs Coordinator, Firelight Media

In June of 2022, Firelight Media convened the 2020 cohort of Documentary Lab Fellows for their first hybrid retreat since the start of the pandemic at the idyllic Arnold House in Upstate New York. The four-day retreat was led by Firelight Media’s Interim Documentary Lab Director Sabaah Folayan, who is also a Doc Lab alum, and supported by Artist Programs Manager Ximena Amescua and Artist Programs Coordinator Antonia Thornton. As this was the final retreat for the cohort, which operated completely virtually up until this point, the team wanted to ensure that those able to travel could experience an in-person retreat and connect with their cohort mates.

Firelight Media’s flagship Documentary Lab seeks out and develops emerging filmmakers of color who make artful and innovative nonfiction films. The 18-month Documentary Lab provides filmmakers with customized mentorship from prominent leaders in the documentary world, as well as funding, professional development workshops, and networking opportunities.

Learn more about the highlights from the Indie Doc Distribution & Impact Documentary Lab Retreat below!

The Documentary Lab Retreat on Indie Doc Distribution & Impact was held from June 20 through June 23 in Livingston Manor, New York.

The first day of the retreat began with an intention-setting welcome session led by Ximena Amescua and ended with a screening of Lizzy Borden’s ever-relevant documentary-style feminist fiction Born in Flames.

The following day got off to a relaxing start with a grounding session administered by Kate Morales, a talented visual facilitator who created the thoughtful graphic notes included in this article. Documentary Lab alum and acclaimed filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck and Sabaah Folayan followed the grounding session with a frank, in-depth discussion about distribution contracts and negotiations. The two discussed their experiences navigating the tensions between artistic aspirations and commercial interests.

The cohort was then able to screen trailers and short samples to a wide range of industry guests in our second annual Firelight Media Distribution Showcase, which was moderated by Documentary Lab alum and award-winning filmmaker Yoruba Richen. The Fellows were able to glean advice about the best distribution channels and impact strategies for their projects.

The showcase session appropriately preceded an impact workshop with Ani Mercedes of Looky Looky Pictures, who is an alum of Firelight Media’s Impact Producer Fellowship, who was able to take that advice and clarify how to put it into practice. The Fellows began to explore their film’s unique power with respect to social impact and engagement through a live impact strategy consultation.

After another wonderful grounding session with Kate Morales, Documentary Lab alum Sian-Pierre Regis kicked off the retreat’s third day. He spoke at length about his recent DIY distribution methods for his documentary Duty Free, which can have as many fruitful results as more commercial distribution strategies.

The day continued with an in-depth discussion about award season strategies from Firelight Media’s very own Founder Stanley Nelson, Co-Founder and President Marcia Smith, Communications Director Justin Sherwood, and Communications Manager Patricia Marte.

Firelight Media’s Indie Doc Distribution & Impact Documentary Lab Retreat was wrapped up with a reflective, relaxing closing session led by Sabaah Folayan.

Learn more about the Documentary Lab and Firelight Media’s other artist support programs by visiting firelightmedia.tv.

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Firelight Media produces documentary films, supports nonfiction filmmakers of color, and cultivates audiences for their work. We’re #changingthestory.