The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

Mentoring Room

  • Public

This is a Public Topic geared towards first-time filmmakers. Professional members of The D-Word will come by and answer your questions about documentary filmmaking.

David Felix Sutcliffe

My film is about Adama Bah, one of two 16-year-old Muslim girls from New York who were arrested by the FBI in 2005 after they were accused of being "potential suicide bombers." The FBI made no attempts to reveal what evidence they had on these girls and only released them after the New York Times published a series of articles about the 2 girls that led to intense scrutiny and public pressure. One girl was deported, and the other-the subject of my film-was allowed to stay, albeit, with an ankle bracelet and a gag order.

For the past two years her life has pretty much unravelled-her father was deported, her mother has suffered several nervous breakdowns, children's services is constantly threatening to place Adama's four younger siblings in foster homes. The government is now also trying to deport her. On top of this, Adama has been forced to become the primary breadwinner for the family. Her friends all graduated last spring and left for college this past fall (her best friend is at Smith right now) as Adama works, what she calls, "immigrant jobs-" babysitting, house-cleaning, etcetera.

I'm looking for an executive producer (as well as editors) and wondering if there's any interested parties out there, or someone who might be willing to pass on contact info of a good EP/editor fit. I've been shooting for almost two years and am ready to begin post-production. As far as fundraising, I have a fiscal sponsor and am preparing my grant applications, but would like to have a partner help me secure a reasonable budget. This is my first-time working on a full-length documentary and although I've been tempted to downsize it and produce it as a 30 minute piece, I think the story demands to be given at least an hour, if not feature length. My editor is based in California and hasn't been able to work much with me, and is eagerly waiting for funding to come through so he can come to New York and get to work. In the meantime, I'm looking for a New York based editor to help me with my sample. (So far, the sample seems to get such a wide range of responses that I think it's time to begin a new approach. Maybe I could post it here and see what people think...)

Anyway, I know this is a lot to put out there but I thought it would be best to put it all in one place rather than attempt to think of all the relevant topics where these issues could be posted. I would be supremely grateful for any advice veteran doc bystanders are willing to sling my way.


Christopher Wong

david, your doc sounds fascinating, and definitely deserving of more than a 30-minute treatment. it really helped me out on my doc to get an executive producer on board... before you proceed, however, have you answered the question of where you want the piece to be broadcast? On PBS? Theatrical? Non-PBS TV? This will dictate what kind of grants you go after, and thus, what kind of EPs will be best for your project. For instance, my EP is Renee Tajima-Pena who has done extensive work with POV, which is exactly the place I want it to air after festivals, theatrical, etc.

Katya Myer

In reply to John Burgan's post on Mon 12 Nov 2007 :

Dear John,

Thank you for your response. You are right, it's definitely not meant to be just an exercise :) I will need approximately 2.5 terabytes of storage space.

With respect to the shooting, I agree too - the only problem is that I want the film to have a very specific visual atmosphere and so far my DP and I haven't reached a complete agreement on it. Also, I won't be able to have the DP with me every day and sometimes I go to places in Israel where one just needs to pick a camera and capture a unique moment. I wanted to try and prepare myself for that as best I can.

Thank you for the advice!

David Felix Sutcliffe

I really love the extensive work that PBS has done to create a strong web-partnership with their films, and although it would be great to have a more mainstream tv audience (via HBO, Cinemax, etcetera) I think PBS has such a strong outreach program that the issues I'm addressing in the film will have a real landing pad, and a chance to significantly and substantially affect an audience, rather than briefly triggering a flash of guilt/sympathy/pity in people's frontal lobes, as seems to be the case with mainstream films that make a splash but aren't sustained by any broader effort to create change.
That said, I think I'm aiming for PBS as well after festivals (and, hopefully, theatrical release). How did you make contact with your EP?

Christopher Wong

through a great seminar at the WGBH Producers Academy, i made contact with a really helpful person at PBS (Kathy Lo). When I told Kathy that I was looking for an EP, she then introduced me to a bunch of different people who would make sense for my project (e.g. Freida Lee Mock, Renee Tajima-Peña, Steven Okazaki). After she made the intro, then I made contact with them through email. Renee turned out to be the best fit.

what i might suggest for you is to find a PBS film (or 2 or 3) that you really like, do some research to see how it was funded, and then if it's a good fit, go and track down that person. if you need help, i can always give Kathy Lo a call on your behalf.

lastly, are you applying for Sundance's next funding round? they are really good at giving first time filmmakers a shot at the money. if your footage is really compelling, and you get funding from them, that really makes it easier to get an EP on board.

i'm sure the more experienced vets here have better suggestions than i.

David Felix Sutcliffe

I am planning on applying to Sundance but I thought that Sundance was rolling. is there a deadline coming up?

As far as your other comments, I have been looking at a few PBS films and eyeing the EP credits, although my experiences in the past with cold-calling people has been a bit frustrating. Perhaps I'll update my list of potential EPs and run them by you to see if Kathy would possibly be willing to be a middle-(wo)man. Thanks for your advice Chris.

Christopher Wong

as far as i know, the sundance documentary fund has two funding cycles per year. though they don't have any official deadlines, they usually issue funding announcements around January and in June -- which is obviously around the time they have their committee meetings where they make the decisions. just make sure you have a good 20-30 minutes of continuous edited footage before you apply... if you want, the D-Word is a good place to get some feedback on your work-in-progress.

Niam Itani

David, Chris, I suggest you carry this to the WIPs because many others do not read this thread.
And, David, if you want to try and contact some of the Muslim Associations in America or something of that sort for funding, probably I can link you to a friend who can help.

Leah Cameron

In reply to Doug Block's post on Thu 11 Oct 2007 :
Hi Doug,

So, it's taken me a while (shooting, good old grant apps), but here I am. I like the 10 Rules of personal documentary filmmaking, especially the how-much-to-put-yourself-on-camera debate. Gahd. I'm already in mine more than I had hoped and looking kind of bleary-eyed at that.

Say, Doug, did you or anyone else who has made a personal doc ever feel like the story is really about what goes on when the cameras are off (i.e. how difficult it is to make a doc about your family?)

I'm having a bit of trouble seeing the larger picture with this one. Think I need the help of a good editor!