Southern Documentary Fund (SDF) Annual Artists’ Convening 2019

Four people pose joyfully behind an old car in a photo booth. The old car is covered with stickers from nonprofit media arts organizations, including CAAM.
Kiyoko McCrae from the New Orleans Film Society, Sapana Sakya of CAAM, Naomi Walker and Un Kyong Ho from SDF pose at the photo booth during the Artist’s Convening in Durham, North Carolina.
The convening offered a place to learn and dialogue, essentially a rest stop where makers could take a moment to reconnect with their intentions and each other so that everyone may continue on this often unpredictable and difficult path that is documentary filmmaking. 

Our partners at the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF) hosted their annual Artists’ Convening this past weekend despite hurricane Dorian threatening the east coast of North Carolina. 

CAAM’s Executive Director Stephen Gong and myself, Sapana Sakya, CAAM’s Talent Development & Special Projects Manager, flew into Raleigh-Durham expecting to experience a bit of rain and wind. However, it seems even Dorian realized he couldn’t stand in the way of this incredible gathering, as we were greeted by clear weather all weekend.

The 6th edition of SDF’s Artists’ Convening kicked off with a session called Who Tells the Story?,  placing discussions on accountability, collaboration, and authenticity in storytelling at the forefront of the weekend bringing together filmmakers from across the South. SDF Executive Director Naomi Walker introduced four projects in their roster including CAAM-funded filmmaker Yi Chen’s film First Vote about a first generation of Chinese immigrants in the South exercising their right to vote in the U.S. elections.

The weekend continued with a workshop on impact producing led by the intrepid Molly Murphy and Hannah Hearn of Working Films. They shared their approach to using documentary film towards impact emphasizing practices that respect the power, agency, and direction of those most affected by the issues. 

The most reflective and dynamic panel was Subject Matter: The Maker/Protagonist Relationship, moderated by Chloe Walters-Wallace of Firelight Media. This session explored the complex relationship between makers and protagonists. The panel brought together filmmaker Jackie Olive and protagonist Claudia Lacy of Always in Season and filmmaker Cynthia Hill and protagonist Kit Gruelle of Private Violence. This discussion centered on how to navigate this sensitive relationship recognizing that protagonists make the decision to open up their lives to the filmmaker, essentially inviting the world into their lives.

There was a fun session on Proposal Writing – yes, I said “proposal writing” and fun together – with SDF’s Gabrielle Eitienne and Dana Merwin of International Documentary Association (IDA), who presented this topic in theatrical form – very possibly the most creative workshop on proposal writing ever enacted.

There was also a Master Class with Sabrina Schmidt Gordon in conversation with Durham-based filmmaker Katina Parker. Sabrina discussed her career,  her approach to storytelling, impact, collaboration, and accountability. She gave the audience a peek into her many works from the last decade with clips from projects ranging from Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes with filmmaker Byron Hurt to her latest film Quest, both of which premiered at Sundance, in 2006 and 2017, respectively.

On the last day, after a morning of Speed Mentoring Sessions (sponsored by ITVS) and Lunch with a Lawyer (Laverne Berry, entertainment and media business affairs attorney, taking questions) – Leslie Fields-Cruz, Executive Director at Black Public Media (BPM) one of CAAM’s partners in the National Multicultural Alliance (NMCA), took over for a Southern version of the Black Media Story Summit. The afternoon kicked off with Expanding the Definition of Doc to discuss existing and emerging media, such as VR, AR, podcasts, series, and others with panelists: N’Jeri Eaton, Senior Manager of Programming Acquisitions at NPR; Aja Evans, Assistant Producer at POV Spark; Garland McLaurin, Documentary Maker; and Rex Miller, Producer, Ashe ’68

Finally, the Summit wrapped up with a lightning round of Breakout Sessions: Forging New Bonds: Amplifying Activism. Makers joined activists, artists, frontline folks working on the issues, and shared their stories of collaborating on drafting story proposals for Black content by Black creators.

SDF’s Convening this year was sold out with packed audiences of Southern filmmakers from across the region who were all working on important film projects of their own. SDF’s Convening offered a place to learn and dialogue, essentially a rest stop where makers could take a moment to reconnect with their intentions and each other so that everyone may continue on this often unpredictable and difficult path that is documentary filmmaking. 

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Sapana Sakya is the Center for Asian American Media’s Talent Development & Special Projects Manager. Sapana’s background is in journalism and documentary filmmaking. She recently returned from four years in Nepal, working with the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (kimff) to create kimff Doc Lab supporting Nepali filmmakers. In her previous work with CAAM, she served as Public Media Director, overseeing funding for independent filmmakers. She trained with distinguished filmmaker Jon Else at the University of California, Berkeley and has since produced and directed several documentaries (Daughters of Everest, Red White Blue November, Oklahoma Home).