This article first appeared in The Alt on June 15, 2018.
2018 NeXt Doc fellows with filmmaker Khalik Allah. Photo courtesy of Youth FX
“Once the door is open, you get into the dark.”
Documentary editor Rabab Haj Yahya (Speed Sisters, The Feeling of Being Watched) offered this storytelling tip to a room full of filmmakers during a NeXt Doc master class. In its third year, the documentary film program—led by Albany’s Youth FX team, known for providing space to minority and underprivileged young filmmakers in and around the Capital Region—has gathered young documentarians of color from around the U.S. as well as international locations from Canada and Brazil. This year 16 storytellers, aged 18 to 24 years old, earned a spot in the coveted five-day documentary film program at the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville.
The Institute’s Logan Nonfiction Program, a fellowship for writers from all over the world to work on investigative or documentary pieces, partnered with Youth FX back in 2016 to make the NeXt Doc retreat possible. The Institute provides the filmmakers with a building of their own, including conference rooms and individual bedrooms, as well as screening rooms and a restaurant for meals, and Youth FX provides the programming.
“The pilot year started out as a three-day thing and immediately after, we realized everything that we’re trying to accomplish can’t be done in three days,” Youth FX’s Darian Henry said. “Year round, [we] coordinate with filmmakers in the industry to build connections and curate what the week will look like.”
Here, the filmmakers have an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the business from Emmy-nominated documentary filmmakers like Haj Yahya, Emmy winner Lyric Cabral ((T)Error) and documentary film visionaries like Khalik Allah (Field Niggas, Antonyms of Beauty, co-cinematographer of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”) and Bing Liu, who has shown his award-winning documentary Minding The Gap at more than two dozen film festivals since January.
“With this year’s NeXt Doc, we really tried to curate based on who was coming. Representation matters so much,” Henry said.
“We’ve had a lot of young people from Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern backgrounds and I feel like we lack that representation overall, in the general setting of film, so we were looking for the new, top, well-known artists from those diverse backgrounds so that we could show…that it is possible for you to be successful and to have access. Also, outside of this, to shatter people’s conception that these people don’t exist or they don’t have stories to tell.”
The selection process is a grassroots effort of the Youth FX team, searching out national programs like PBS’ POV, the television program known for their showcase of independent, nonfiction films. Henry and fellow NeXt Doc program director Bhawin Suchak scoured POV’s archive of youth programs and hit up their mutual festival connections in search of some young needles in the industry haystack.
“No one really thinks about the filmmakers who are coming out of high school, just going to college, and are really serious. We have people here who have started production companies, who have started collectives, who have worked with CBS, who are doing the work,” Henry said. “It’s a matter of them having the support and finding a space of encouragement, ‘In spite of you being stuck in this place, the stories and the ideas you have are important and you can tell them. How can we support you? What do you need?’ We’re just reflecting the energy back to them.”
In the program’s third year, young filmmakers from as far as Colombia, Brazil and Nigeria have started searching out NeXt Doc on their own. Applications this year doubled from 43 in 2017 to 82 hopeful fellows.
“We forget that this is an international program,” Henry said, shaking her head. “We didn’t accept 60 people … I’m trying to develop a plan so I can go back to those applicants who have so much potential and find some way to bring them into the fold and recognize them: I see you, I see the work that you’re doing and how important it is, our program rejecting you is not the end. There is a place for you.”
One of the multi-talented fellows who did gain access to the program is creator and entrepreneur Jenny Jay, 23, from Brampton, Ontario. She is the co-founder of Sisterhood Media, a production company based out of Toronto dedicated to creating creating web series, docu-series and film for and by marginalized communities. Jay also founded The Double Jay Collective for artists and is pursuing documentary projects of her own, including a 40-page book of photography and poetry.
“I’ve have a convoluted entrance into film,” she smiled. Jay originally went to school for film but dropped out after losing touch with the her passion in the midst of theory classes. After shooting a short documentary with her Sisterhood Media co-founder in 2016, she re-discovered her spark.
“Film can be used for activism and as something creative, it isn’t always as it’s presented in academic settings. Now, [I’m] helping to facilitate that for other projects that are making a difference.”
Halfway through the NeXt Doc retreat, she sat down to ruminate on her experience.
“As someone who comes from a non-academic setting of film, it can be really intimidating going from festival to festival where, ‘Nobody here in the room looks like me, nobody here has the same trajectory as me. They have fine art degrees or have been working on film number eight. Am I the only one?’ Beyond the amount of learning that has happened…just being in a space where everyone has very similar stories or parallel experiences is the most validating feeling. I’m extremely emotional about that. It feels so good to have a sense of community I can go back to,” she said. “There are other people who look like me, who fall into multiple identities but want to make films about those identities. I can still go into a room where there will be nobody that looks like me, but now I have people to talk to about it.”
In addition to attending master classes and Q&A sessions like Haj Yahya’s, the fellows also have had the chance to present their own pieces, learning from each other’s styles and skill sets while working through group critique and commentary, building their community from the ground up.
These are some serious bodies of work. Their films explore a heavy—and necessary—range of subjects from gentrification, family history, immigration, “hyphenated millennials”, identity and spirituality or feminism and sexuality.
In one impromptu screening period, some fellows took diligent notes, locked into every moment of their colleagues’ projects. Others curled up in the theater seats, shoes off, drinking it all in.
Brooklyn-by-San Antonio documentarian César Martínez, 23, presented an emotionally jarring short documentary about a cemetery of unmarked graves located outside of San Diego, the lives of those who attempted to emigrate from Mexico in search of a more secure life. It was his first time seeing his own work in a theater setting.
“For a long time I was interested in making a film about asylum seekers from Mexico who are trying to apply for political asylum in the United States,” he told The Alt after his screening. “Most of the time, we’re thinking of people emigrating from Mexico as economic migrants when in fact there are many safety issues they face. In the process of researching this…I became fascinated with this place. A monument to people who have risked their lives and lost them while trying to fulfill what is the American Dream.”
Martínez filmed the documentary in the summer of 2016, when candidate Donald Trump was promising to build a wall along the US and Mexico border as soon as he secured the presidency. But the wall was already there.
“We were talking about it in future tense and never past tense,” Martínez said. “The film was an examination of that region and how the border wall has impacted the lives that have been lost, but also the families that have been separated by this arbitrary wall that already exists. It was a way to historicize the conversations we’re having in the present.”
Films like Martinez’ shed light on stories that need to be told. Most importantly, these filmmakers are reflected in their own stories, they’re living them.
After the showing of Aden Suchak’s project “Lunch,” depicting his grandmother making a lunch of chicken curry as she recalls her childhood in Bangalore, adulthood in Africa and current life in America, hands shot up.
“I don’t know if you know this, but every South Asian household has that pot with the blue flower, it’s a corning dish. Every aunt, my mom, that same exact one!” one fellow told Suchak excitedly. “It’s passed on histories…It’s almost like I shared your grandmother so that was really special, thank you.”
Others recognized foods that were being cooked. They could smell it. They knew the decorations on the walls of his grandmother’s home. Later, in Haj Yahya’s class, one fellow recognized the imagery of a checkpoint in Palestine that was being hinted at in the editor’s film The Feeling of Being Watched.
“Film is your language, it’s impossible to be objective in a way. This is reality and there’s a person behind the camera,” Haj Yahya said.
In cases like Jay and most of her colleagues‘ in which they have often navigated the film industry as the only person of color “in the room,” NeXt Doc flips their experience completely. Suddenly, they are surrounded by creators who look like them, speak their language, can empathize with their stories, having had similar cultural and life experiences.
“That’s a gift,” Suchak said. “For me, I’ve been working with youth for almost 20 years and I see the importance of these opportunities for people. They’re transformative, they can literally change your life.”
So far, fellows from the two previous years have gone on to develop their projects in new ways or work with well known organizations like POV, Good Pitch or The Washington Post digital team.
The NeXt Doc program itself is gaining influence as well. This summer, they partnered with Basilica Hudson and True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo. to form a nonfiction screening series in the Basilica space.
“The Basilica partnership, in essence, is to continue the thread of documentary,” Henry said.
“To curate a series of documentary films that we saw at True False that would take a really long time for people to gain access to in this region.”
Moving forward, Henry said she knows the program will only continue to take over the scene.
“We’re on the forefront of something bigger than us,” Henry said. This needed to be here.”
“I’m already thinking of sitting at the table with other people in the industry and having a serious conversation that ends with action. How are we disrupting a structure that is dying?,” she asked. “How are we, as a human race, cultivating a future and thinking seven generations ahead? Thinking about the youth, the form, our modes of expression. Y’all are gonna die at some point. We’re left to pick it up. If you’re not thinking about us now, when will you?”