Scenes from "Always in Season," "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool," and "Words from the Bear"

Striking a Match: How the Firelight Lab Amplified the Voices of the Underrepresented in the Documentary World

In a scene from the electrifying “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” the musicologist and historian Tammy Kernodle describes a part of the jazz trumpeter’s genius that isn’t always touched upon, describing how he was always “surrounding himself with young, emerging, unknown voices and allowed them to develop their musical identity in the band and continue regenerating over and over for the remainder of his career.”

Although Kernodle’s talking about Davis giving the room to up-and-comers such as John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock to come into their own, you can easily draw a parallel to Stanley Nelson, the man behind the camera, in similar terms, paving the way for filmmakers such as Dawn Porter (“Trapped”) and Peter Nicks (“The Waiting Room”) to establish themselves. And while he may be excited for the premiere of what will be his tenth film at Sundance on Saturday night, Nelson is just as thrilled to attend the first for two alumni of the Firelight Lab, the fellowship program he started 10 years ago.

“I just can’t wait to go to all of those premieres and see those filmmakers standing on the red carpet, coming out there and introducing their film at Sundance,” Nelson confides of his plans to see “Always in Season,” Jacqueline Olive’s searing history of lynching in America, and “Words from a Bear,” Jeffrey Palmer’s stirring profile of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American author N. Scott Momaday. “It’s incredible. It’s like if you ever talk to people that are grandparents, they talk about the difference between being a parent and grandparent — it’s just pure joy.”

To add up all that Nelson has contributed to the cultural conversation with such films as “Freedom Riders” and “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution” would be to assemble the definitive cinematic chronicle of African-American life in the 20th century, but while carving out a place for this important history in movie theaters and on television, the filmmaker has been opening the door for those who will write the history of the 21st century through his production company Firelight Media.

It was actually at the turn of the century that he set up his own shop with his wife Marcia A. Smith to produce his own films, but quickly noticed that others were knocking on his door for advice about their own films. Never one to turn away another filmmaker, especially when those of color had so few others to ask for advice, Nelson would informally offer help, but got slightly more serious about it when Byron Hurt, a former production assistant of his, started work on his first feature “Hip-Hop: Beats and Rhymes” and sought help with the proposal to attract funding.

“[Byron] did 99.9% of the work, but we were able to help and give him some insight,” recalls Nelson, who became an executive producer on the film. “And then when the film went to Sundance and got a standing ovation, we were like, ‘Well, this is something we can do for other filmmakers and be of help when needed.’”

That led Nelson to establish the Firelight Producers Lab in 2009 with Mabel Haddock, the founder of Black Public Media, where emerging African-American filmmakers could receive mentorship from established veterans in the field in all areas of production and distribution. Naturally, Hurt’s second film “Soul Food Junkies” was one of the first recipients and around this same time, Loira Limbal, a filmmaker in search of a steady paycheck after completing her first feature (“Estilo Hip Hop”) was tipped off to an opening for an office manager at Firelight and soon rose to become director of what has now become known as the Firelight Documentary Lab, which has grown into an 18-month fellowship where filmmakers can workshop their projects with professionals who were in exactly the same position they are.

“There is this sensibility that we bring to the lab and the way that we like to work with filmmakers that is different than other institutions that might’ve started as funders or broadcasters or gatekeepers and then develop labs,” says Limbal. “At least from the filmmakers’ side, I think there’s a sense of not being fully able to let your guard down because you don’t ever want to worry your funders or supporters. With us, they know we’re all in the trenches all the time and we know what the nature of production work is like.”

Well aware that no two films, or filmmakers, for that matter, are alike, Limbal takes great pains to match up each fellow with the right series of mentors, conducting conversations with those accepted into the Lab about what they want not only out of the project that’s in front of them, but their careers in general. In Firelight’s quest to give  monetary value to work that is often seen only in terms of how it’ll serve the greater good, the mentors are compensated for their time and after establishing the Next Step Media Fund in 2013, funding is provided to the fellows to help get their projects off the ground. Then over the course of the the fellowship, filmmakers are invited to three retreats that typically feature work-in-progress screenings of features from the lab, master classes and panels as well as plenty of one-on-one attention to bring their individual projects into focus.

“For 18 months, they offered me project support with a level of intention and commitment that allowed me to mostly move calmly through the filmmaking process knowing that I had some of the best talents in the industry to turn to for advice, feedback, and resources when facing challenges great and small,” said Olive, whose “Always in Season” will be making its Sundance debut on January 26th. “It’s also been special to have a professional space with filmmakers of color that doesn’t require negotiating the additional challenges that we can face in an industry that is not yet fully structurally equitable. I really appreciate that Firelight fills this need.”

Although from the outset Firelight sought to lift up African-American filmmakers through the Lab, the mission of fellowship has grown to amplify new voices from various communities of color and from regions typically underserved in terms of filmmaking resources and rich in stories that rarely find their way onto the big screen. However, the rolling application process that they initially set out with was only attracting submissions from filmmakers who knew where to look, primarily from around Firelight’s headquarters in New York, so in 2017, they reconfigured the process around an open call between April and June.

“[We thought] there’s some people here we’re not reaching and by concentrating the submissions process around an open call, we could really make a big announcement, engage partners and put real outreach muscle into that that would yield better results and it has,” says Limbal, who cites fellows from New Mexico to Hawaii to Texas to Ohio with 19 projects currently in the works.

The emphasis on regional diversity as much as racial diversity has yielded some of the most compelling documentaries in recent years, whether it’s Assia Boundaoui’s “The Feeling of Being Watched” about the constant FBI surveillance of the Arab-American community in her hometown of Chicago without cause, Lyric Cabral & David Felix Sutcliffe’s Pittsburgh-set “(T)error,” about similar themes, Ciara Lacy’s “Out of State” about Hawaiian prisoners who have been shipped off to a private prison in Arizona, but insist on keeping their cultural traditions alive on the inside, and Sonia Kennebeck’s “National Bird” about the unforeseen implications of drone warfare on American veterans and those who they fought in a one-sided war with.

For American audiences, Firelight has enabled peeks into places they live right alongside but will often pass without notice, allowing for a far more nuanced look at national social issues through the lens of local perspective and while these films have all come from a distinct point of view, the experience of seeing these subjects anew happens for the filmmakers as well in the Documentary Lab where the commingling of filmmakers of different point of views can begin to rub off on one another.

“The fellows at Firelight come from a multitude of diverse backgrounds and it was refreshing working with people that could empathize with my situation,” says Palmer, who came to the Lab in 2016 with “Words from a Bear,” which will see its Park City premiere on January 29th. “By the end, I met so many people eager to help and keep in touch with me and follow my progress. Many of us discuss needs and problems on a very active e-mail list-serv [and] the Firelight Staff were so professional and provided us with countless opportunities during the lab and for years after.”

Ten years in, the Documentary Lab has been around long enough where fellows have become mentors and a real community has taken shape with over 70 alumni all branching out while often remaining in close touch with each other.

“The greatest resource of the fellowship is the community of fellows because you have this community of other talented folks of color who are going through similar processes and to have that support and to be a resource to each other, to be able to hold each other accountable and understanding the nuances of the process of documentary – that in and of itself is invaluable, so we’re always encouraging that,” says Limbal. “Sometimes even fellows from different years that weren’t even in the [Lab] cohort together, but through an event or a list-serv are somehow connected and then went on to collaborate with each other. We even have a couple that I believe is going to be getting married soon, so lots of collaborations.”

Even though he’s spent a career fostering a sense of community with his films, Nelson has been surprised by how Firelight has been able to build such a robust one behind the scenes, seeing a simple suggestion from a few years ago like a monthly dinner in New York with current and alumni fellows, Skyping in the ones who can’t be in town, take off as a real familial event.

“We’ve seen how important that’s been to lab members, so a bunch of the lab members are working with each other after they get out on their next film. They have a resource list and they share resources – camera people, sound people, graphics — and they feel like they’re part of the community,” says Nelson. “I’m proud to be a part of that community too because so many times as filmmakers we literally work in the dark, so there’s a big feeling of loneliness, and being able to have a community is really important.”

Firelight has also sought to grow that community and experience beyond the confines of the 18-month fellowship, using the Lab in the truest sense of the word to experiment with ways that can help filmmakers even further. A Corporation for Public Broadcasting Grant in 2014 and a MacArthur Grant in 2015 recognizing the impact the Lab was having on bringing underrepresented voices to the screen allowed Firelight to be more ambitious and after seeing just how many filmmakers outside of the coasts struggle to find the right resources and connections to realize their films, they established Groundwork, which brings a truncated, day-long variation of the Lab to them, partnering with local organizations around the U.S. such as the Detroit Narrative Agency and Femme Frontera out of El Paso for workshops that put filmmakers in touch with seasoned industry pros who can offer guidance specific to individual projects.

Limbal and the team at Firelight have also sought out opportunities beyond features since they can take so long to come together without giving filmmakers a living wage, securing partnerships that lead to immediately relevant projects that can help pay the rent such as a collaboration with Field of Vision for “Our 100 Days,” a series of seven shorts presented as an alternative to mainstream coverage of Trump’s first three months in office that could use Firelight’s reach around the country to show how his presidency was impacting communities of color and with PBS for “Masters in the Making,” an offshoot of “American Masters” that will have emerging filmmakers profiling artists currently in their prime. The Lab director also actively tries to keep the conversation around features that have already been made by Lab fellows with event screenings, such as a series last fall in Harlem, and place alumni filmmakers at gatherings for the doc community to increase their own profile and remain in the minds of those who can help their films down the road, even when work on their features can have the effect of looking as if they’ve disappeared for years.

“Your visibility is part of your career options in our field,” says Limbal. “So we do quite a bit of advocating, recommending our fellows and alumni as speakers and presenters for conferences and panels and trying to position them as leaders in the field or as experts.”

Adds Nelson, “Our long-term goal is for filmmakers to be able to pay their own rent and buy their groceries from filmmaking, so we work with filmmakers on their individual projects, and more concretely, we want their projects to get completed, be completed on budget and on time and get a national airing in some form or another, so [then] they can then go on to take a place within the industry.”

But as he notes, the work can’t end there.

“One of the things we’re finding is that so many times our filmmakers come to the Lab, get a Sundance premiere, a national showing, and they win awards, but they still have a problem getting in the door for a second film,” says Nelson. “So we hope to have a program that helps filmmakers make that second film.”

With everything Firelight has already put in to creating something sustainable, at least neither they or the filmmakers they’ve helped with a first feature won’t be starting from scratch. In fact, going forward, it’s likely the two will draw strength from each other to the benefit of future generations.

“Over the years, I have been inspired by others who finished incredible films and launched their festival runs. It’s wonderful to now follow in their footsteps, and hopefully I’ll inspire other filmmakers,” says Olive. “I’d also love to be in a position to develop a fellowship program like Firelight’s so that, in a similar way, I can pass on the gifts of the Documentary Lab.”

Stanley Nelson, Jacqueline Olive and Jeffrey Palmer will be appearing at the Sundance panel “The Way Forward – New American Storytelling,” presented by Firelight Media and Color Of Change, hosted at Kickstarter House on Friday, January 25 from 5:30 pm – 8:30 pm.

“Miles Davis: The Birth of the Cool” will screen on January 27th at 8:30 pm at Prospector Square Theatre, January 30th at 8:30 am at the Egyptian Theatre, February 1st at 2:30 pm at the MARC in Park City, and February 2nd at 9:45 pm at the Broadway Cinema in Salt Lake City.

“Always in Season” will screen on January 26th at 11:30 am at Prospector Square Theatre and January 27th at 9 am at the Temple Theatre in Park City, January 28th at 3 pm at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, January 29th at 9:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City, January 30th at 12:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema in Park City and February 2nd at noon at the Temple Theatre in Park City.

“Words from a Bear” will screen on January 29th at noon at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, January 30th at 3:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City, January 31st at 3:30 pm at the Ray Theatre and February 2nd at 10 pm at the Redstone Cinema in Park City.

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