Year In Review: 2018

This year I...

  • Implemented or consulted on impact production for 36 Films

  • Taught 11 workshops (or case studies) to 440 participants in 5 countries (Brazil, Canada, Mexico, the U.S., and the Netherlands) plus 1 online 

  • Hosted 4 episodes of the Thriving Filmmaker Show to 312 participants from 20+ countries (including the U.S., South Africa, Mexico, Spain, India, the Philippines, the UK, Hungry, France, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Argentina, Colombia, Kenya, Jordan, Brazil, Pakistan, Serbia, Denmark, and others).

  • Loved every minute of it! #pursueitwell

I am filled with gratitude to the Thriving Filmmaker community (now nearly 500 strong), each filmmakers who's graciously shared their work with me--thank you for allowing me to be in community with you during the vulnerable creation process, and every organization I've had the heart-thumping joy of collaborating with--thank you for trusting me and my work to strengthen your mission, and the individuals and organizations I've engaged with--thank you for taking the time to watch and engage with the powerful stories we've brought you and seeing how they can help change hearts, minds, and structures in our shared pursuit of creating a more just world.

Pursue your passion and pursue it well.

Each day for the past year I've written down a short reflection or memory in my 5 year memory book.

My first entry was on the first day of 2018, and it reads: 

"Pursue your passion and pursue it well."  
-Brooke Shaden (one of my favorite photographers)


Pursue your passion is a common statement.
But it's the second part--pursue it well--that's often overlooked. 

Ask yourself: Are you pursing your passion well? What does that mean to you?

I believe, it's not enough to just 'want make a feature doc' or 'make a film and then just see what happens.' To thrive, you must focus on the journey and not just the destination, the act of creation and not just the finished product, the reactions during screenings not just the reviews and awards. 

Ask yourself: Where do you find joy in the pursuit of your passion?

Ava DuVernay says it best when reflecting on creating Selma:

Posted July 2018 "July 2, 2014. [4 years ago.] On this day. Four years ago. We had no clue how it would be perceived. If folks would like it. We just loved it every day and tried our VERY best in EVERY single moment. That's all you can do with whatever you've set your mind to. Love it. Be in love with it. And then give it your best. That's the makings of a good life. The rest is what it is. Because nothing will ever be as good as the experience of making it, if you make that experience golden. So, just focus and enjoy. Nothing better. xo"

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Ask yourself: How do you celebrate and document pursuing your passion well?

In addition to my 5 year memory book, I have a "Magical Things" tag in my email where I file away messages that have brought me joy. (Much of my work as an Impact Producer is about building relationships, so an email folder makes sense for my passion. Do what makes sense for you.)

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I wish for you to find joy in pursing your passion well, and to celebrate that pursuit in and of itself.

Share two things with us:
1) What does pursing your passion mean to you?
2) How do you celebrate and document pursing your passion well?

Dear Filmmakers, Trust your work.

Still: Las flores de la Noche

Still: Las flores de la Noche

Trust your work.

I helped teach a workshop to filmmakers in Mexico City this week and one filmmaker said something that I'll never forget...

"Daríamos la vida por contar esta historia."
// "We would give our life to tell this story."

Wow. This was heavy, and so was his work. His film, Flores de la Noche // Flowers of the Night, is about trans youth finding freedom and friendship, and quite literally, fighting for their lives to just exist. 

It is a heavy and virtuous task to create from a place of deep emotional truth. 

Not all stories are this high risk and personal. But I believe that the greatest storytelling comes from a deep place of emotional truth.

Getting to that place takes surrender, trust, and vulnerability.

Making art is about surrendering, distribution and sustainability are about control. 

Do what causes a revolution in your heart, and you will work out the rest. We’re here to help you with the impact production and sustainability part.

I just wanted to remind filmmakers that it's okay to surrender, be vulnerable in your storytelling, and trust your work.

Table Your Spreadsheets, Produce Your Film’s Impact Distribution Like a Pro

You probably use Google Sheets (or some spreadsheet) to keep track of festivals you’ve applied to, potential impact partners, applications you plan to submit, and everything else you’re trying to keep track of for your film’s impact distribution.

But there’s a better way! It’s the difference between editing by hand — where cutting footage required actual scissors — and editing on a computer — with a simple shortcut.

Meet Airtable! It has the look, feel, and flexibility of a spreadsheet, but is actually a relational database so has the functionality of a CRM (client relationship management system) that most mid to large sized businesses and nonprofits use to track relationships.

Rather than tell you how it works, we’ll show you…

  • Below are opportunities, which (unlike in a spreadsheet) can be linked together with contacts, organizations, and interactions.

  • Everyone on your team can see the status of each opportunity

  • You can even attach files directly into it, even from your phone. #gamechanger!

Is it free? Yes, up to 1,200 records/rows and 2 GB. We use these for every film and have never needed to upgrade.

If no image appears below, click here.

Want to try the template above for your film?

  1. Click here to sign up for Airtable. (This gives us a $10 credit. You get a $10 credit for each person you invite to your link, after you sign up.)

  2. Click here to see, copy, and customize the template. (It includes the sample data above.)

Share it with a film friend who’s feeling overwhelmed by impact distribution.

Pro tip: Download the phone app here and play with attaching photos to the “Interactions” tab.

Let us know what you think in the comments! (We have a more robust version of this but wanted to share something more streamlined so you can make it your own.)


Children are often characterized as helplessly subject to circumstances beyond their control. Documentary films about children don’t often go beyond empathy, especially when the children are orphans in southern Africa.

But, that is the magic of Liyana, a hybrid animated-verité documentary film rooted in dignity and a spectacular respect for childhood.  Liyana is uniquely crafted at the intersection of innovative art and graceful social impact.

It elegantly weaves together imagination and reality. As the film unfolded, I realized that I was watching a rare and brilliant moment when, against all odds, a child's powerless vulnerability blooms into boundless self-determination and they become self-aware masters of their own journey.

With the help of a storyteller and facilitator, Gcina Mhlophe, the children work together to design a character from their imagination and name her Liyana. They craft an epic journey for Liyana — deciding her circumstances, her suffering, her joy, her family — all the while, unconsciously filtering their own personal stories into hers. The film dances between Liyana’s animated odyssey to save her twin brothers, and verité moments and interviews of the children’s day-to-day reality in an orphanage.  It’s an ode to the therapeutic power of personal storytelling as an impactful tool that changes the course of one's identity, choices, and thus, our world.

The filmmakers cleverly merged the cinematic animation of Liyana’s story with the children’s narration and personal reflections. Almost the entire film is told by children themselves -- you rarely hear an adult speak.  As a former elementary school teacher, I loved this because it gave them the voice and agency that’s often left out of their own narratives. It also pushes the boundaries of self determination in film.

“I wanted to make a film they would be proud of,”

said Aaron Kopp, the co-director with Amanda Kopp. "[The childrens'] response to the film was the main thing for us."

They flew the kids to the world premiere at the L.A. Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. They also established a college fund for the kids, and hope to create a graphic novel of Liyana’s journey.

Liyana is a remarkable film. I hope it rocks the documentary film world and inspires filmmakers to allow children, and people who are often depicted as vulnerable, to tell their own stories with dignity and pride, rather than pity. As one of the children in the film confidently declares,

"I decide how my story ends." 

Telling stories this way has a deep impact in the world. To quote a South African writer, Sandisile Tshuma

"As an African in a world that fetishizes our suffering and paints us with a single brush, the way the story is told makes me feel respected, seen and heard."  

That is the most profound impact a documentary film can have, enabling you to feel seen and proud of who you are.

Thriving Filmmaker at Good Pitch Miami!

It was a thrill to teach my "Thriving Filmmaker" playshop at Good Pitch Miami 2017! 

Good Pitch is AMAZING, sincere, and welcoming about supporting filmmakers, so it was a joy to bring this to Good Pitch Miami filmmakers.

And, with only 22% of documentary professionals able to make a living from filmmaking, it's a crisis in our industry that's becoming increasingly important as distribution channels evolve. So the transparent conversation and concrete tools in the playshop are were eagerly welcome. 

Here's what filmmakers and participants had to say:

What was most helpful?

  • All of it! Your welcoming energy was wonderful.

  • Everything!

  • Addressing things that I'm almost always afraid to

  • Technical money guidance, Tools & apps

  • Info about managing personal debt

What could be improved?

  • It was perfect to me!

  • Add more time!

  • Include examples of a successful case. But it was wonderful :)

Anything else you'd like to share?

  • You are wonderful

  • It was exciting, thanks a lot!

  • It would be great to have a link or info to share about the workshop. I think many people would be interested.

Would you recommend this to a friend? 

  • 100% said Yes

How satisfied were you on a scale of 1 to 10? 

  • 9.6

The Viewed vs. The Viewer

Reflections on Empathy and Empowerment in Character-Driven Cinéma Vérité Social Documentary Films

(I drafted this three months ago, and Sonya Childress' article Beyond Empathy, inspired me to finally post it.) 

I was quietly sobbing uncontrollably -- vision blurry from heavy tears, a softball-size lump swelling in my throat. All the feels. The person beside me could surely hear that I needed a tissue.

I’ve had a small handful of moments like this -- experiencing a film that moves me so deeply it changes me, and can even sometimes define a part of me. After all, "For thousands of years, we’ve been telling stories in the dark around a flickering light, whether a campfire or a projector." (Citation: Mark Mangini. 2016 Oscar acceptance speech for Sound Editing.

It was at that tear-drenched moment a few years ago that I vowed to make documentary films like this, someday.  Films that could move someone as deeply as I -- and others in that theater -- were moved; films that could make you feel empathy with the people whose stories they tell and thus “change the world”.

I’ve since worked on films like this, sat through several tear-jerking documentaries at film festivals, and continue to be in awe of how someone can feel so much empathy for a stranger’s story told through a flickering light.

However, I’ve since begun to question the role of empathy in documentary film.

To be clear, I’m specifically referring to documentary films that seek to expose a problem in our society through the suffering, challenges, and obstacles of someone’s suffering in order to elicit empathy.

The idea of film as a form of empathy began with the legendary, Roger Ebert:

“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.”

(Citation: Ebert’s Walk of Famer Remarks:

Although I can understand the argument that film is a great empathy machine, I also can see how it does the opposite: elicit pity and shame.

Often the filmmaker hopes that empathy will be felt by ‘the powers that be’ and the powerful will empathize with the powerless suffering subjects/characters, to the point where the powerful decision maker will alleviate the suffering of that character’s social group through changing laws and/or public policy that impact that social group. In other words, a powerful politician will help the poor stop being poor because they saw a documentary about it.

Although this is an altruistic and noble endeavor, the foundational premise behind this assumes that influence and power are top down -- and that the decision makers ‘in power’ are the nucleus of influence.

In other words, imagine you’re a stereotypically powerful individual (say a middle-aged educated upper-class male living in a G8 country -- like Roger Ebert for example) and you get to walk in someone else’s shoes for two hours. You can then go back to your safe and comfortable life, write about it, and talk to your friends over coffee on a Monday afternoon about it. In the best case scenario, you feel heart-warming empathy and donate to a cause or even influence top-down policy.

Let’s zoom out for a second and flip this assumption: What’s the other side of the coin?

Imagine now that you’re a stereotypically powerless individual -- who are commonly the principal subjects in a socially charged documentary film (say a young female Dominican immigrant to the United States who dreams of alleviating her family’s financial burdens -- like me a few years back...I’m not so young anymore, though). And now you sit through two hours of a film that affirms your family’s suffering, the hopelessness you feel or once felt, or retells the traumatic story of your homeless/suicidal/[insert your suffering of choice] friend’s story from childhood. Best case, you don’t cry that night, and instead frantically Google facts/figures/stories that disprove the statistics in the film about how unlikely it is that you’ll graduate from high school/college and are destined to live a life of socio-economic destitution, softly and quietly trying to affirm within yourself, “But not all of “us” are like this.”

This begs the question: How does documenting and exposing the most intimate and vulnerable moments serve those who are impoverished, disenfranchised, and already often stereotyped in this way?

For “them” to feel empathy for their own story? In other words, who are these stories serving? Not who are they ‘saving’ but who are they ‘serving’?

As a filmmaker, how do you answer: Who am I making this for?

Put most directly by Eddie Martinez:

The brutal truth is that the history of documentary filmmaking is rooted explicitly in cultural, racial, gender and class-based colonialism. For decades upon decades, Western filmmakers—almost exclusively white men—traveled to other countries and cultures to extract resources (footage), which they would exploit (edit) for the benefit of their home culture (theaters, film festivals, PBS, etc.). This flow of power, and along with it the control over these stories, historically traveled in one direction—from those without it to those with it.

To bring the point home, have you ever seen a documentary about rich white people made by poor black people?

(Citation: Eddie Martinez. International Documentary Association. July 19, 2016. Navigating the River: The Hidden Colonialism of Documentary

So, at some point in my teens I stopped listening, watching, and engaging with the stories that told me I would not, could not, and don’t deserve to, and only engaged with those that affirmed I would and could be an ambitious, engaged, and successful individual in light of my identity.

Most definitively in my quest to conquer the colonial and romantic notion of empathy in documentary film (and, I should add, within Anthropology -- my undergraduate major) are the words famously championed by Anthropologist Laura Nader’s argument for “studying up”:

“If we look at the literature [or films] based on fieldwork [or verite] in the United States, we find relatively abundant literature on the poor, the ethnic groups, the disadvantaged; this is comparatively little field research [or verite films] on the middle class, and very little first hand work on the upper classes. … What if in reinventing anthropology [or documentary filmmaking], anthropologists [or filmmakers] were to study the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless, the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty?

‘Studying up’ as well as studying down would lead us to ask many “common sense” questions in reverse. Instead of asking why some people are poor we would ask why other people are so affluent?”

(Citation: Laura Nader. 1972. Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.

Why not study up more? Why not make more films intended for the stereotypically disadvantaged to empathize with the stereotypically affluent/elite/privileged? I believe the potential for impact with stories like this is unexplored for the most part and thus one of the strengths of documentary film is untapped -- to show you someone or something you’ve never seen before.

I also think that it is often the things that are taken for granted by affluent communities that could have the most impact on those who doesn’t have access to them. For example, I remember watching TV as a kid, namely the Full House TV sitcom, and thinking, “Wow, their house has two floors.” The 90’s kid in me now knows they were middle class, and having a two story house is a relatively unremarkable fact. But, nonetheless, it was a thing of awe and wonder to me because I didn’t know anyone who had a two story house. Having a two story house meant you were “rich.” “How could I access that world?” I would wonder.

To put this another way, the current median household income in the U.S. is $56,516 (per year). (Citation: Census Data. HINC-01 Table: So, if your household (not you as an individual, but your household), makes more than that, then your household’s income is higher than 50% of American households. If you’re an individual making more than that, then you alone are making more than 50% of American households. You are also in the top 0.22% richest people in the world by income. (Citation: Globalrichlist: It would take the average laborer in Indonesia 76 years to earn the same amount.

Rather than making a film about the poverty of a labourer in Indonesia for the top 0.22% richest people in the world for them to empathize with the labourer, I personally am more interested in making a film about the Indonesian elite for the labourer to have access to that world and hopefully be empowered and inspired to pursue access to their own agency by that access. To put it another way, if documentary films were like a cooking show, then are they showing people the burnt cake that no one wants to eat or the three-tier delicious cake everyone wants to eat -- which do you want people to be making?

As a filmmaker, I feel that the premise of empathy is:

A film can help people save other people via empathy.

But what if the premise were self-empowerment:

A film can help people become self-empowered via access and agency.

This is why my own work in film production and impact producing focuses on stories that expand a viewer’s notion of what’s possible -- like a doctor who is also a hip-hop choreographer or people who were living paycheck to paycheck and are now personal finance experts (both films I’m currently working on).

I seek to amplify and tell stories that create access and impact into worlds of affluence that may be taken for granted (even if that’s just middle-class affluence); stories that unexpectedly study up and open the doors to self-determination and agency. I like to include the subjects/characters in the filmmaking process and show them cuts along the way; I try to tell the story with them, not for them.

Filmmaker Steve James has discussed this approach -- he has found that one of the keys to his success has been letting his subjects participate in the process:

“The more control your subjects feel they have,” he explained, “the more they let you do what they want to do. I give them the sense that we’re doing this together and they can say no and I will respect that. I may try to change their mind, but I will respect their decision.”

(Citation: Steve James:

James' film, The Interrupters (in which former gang members organize to take actions in their community against violence) does this. It celebrates agency, by giving both the viewers and the viewed a story of self-determination and agency. A message of the film is: you do not have to wait on the ‘powers that be’, rather ‘you are the power that is’ and thus have the capacity to change your community for the better. It shows how the stereotypically powerless already have power. After all, there isn’t really a “powers that be”, because, you -- by virtue of your humanity -- is the power that already is.

Life Itself also gives access to this world. By telling the story of Roger Ebert, the viewer has access to how he created a life of affluence -- because, after all, it is a luxury to pursue one’s creative passions as a means of making a decent living.

The groundbreaking (and glass ceiling shattering!) director Ava DuVernay, sums up best the driving force I believe is at the heart of filmmaking for me: “Serve the story, and other will be served by it.” (Citation: Ava DuVernay, SXSW 2015 Keynote:

Making a film is only the first half of the filmmaking process. For me, the fun also comes when you distribute it. After all, the point is to make a film that people want to watch and ideally be inspired by to take action. As again Ava DuVernay, puts it: “Watching people watch our movie...was like serving dinner and watching them eat, we drove from theater to theater watching them watch the story.” (Citation: Ava DuVernay, SXSW 2015 Keynote:

My favorite part of filmmaking is watching people watch the story. This is a photo of the audience watching my film at the first international film festival I was selected for.

These reflections and experience have led me to the magical world of impact producing -- where I help social issue documentary films create an impact in the world through audience engagement, strategic distribution, and strategic partnerships.

I encourage us, as filmmakers, to consider stories that “study up,” and to also tell stories with, rather than, for your subject/character.

To start, I suggest considering discussing these guiding questions with subjects/characters:

  1. Why do you want to share your story? Why are you participating in this?

  2. What impact do you hope your story will have?

  3. What is your dream scene list? As filmmakers we make shot lists and imagine scenes, I suggest considering doing that with your subjects