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The Support System: NeXt Doc Boosts Emerging Talent from Marginalized Communities

By Bhawin Suchak

The 2017 NeXt Doc Fellows. Photo: Youth FX.

For any young aspiring filmmaker, entering the world of documentary can be a challenging endeavor. And if you're a person of color, or have limited financial means, or are part of another historically marginalized community, then entering this seemingly esoteric field becomes even more daunting. It requires understanding the business realities of the industry, as well as having support systems to help you develop projects while staying true to who you are and the stories you're trying to tell.

When we launched NeXt Doc in 2016, our goal was to provide space for young documentary filmmakers ages 18-24 from marginalized communities who have the potential to become the next emerging talents. Organizations like ITVS, Firelight Media, BAVC, Third World Newsreel, Kartemquin Films, IDA, the National Minority Consortia and others have been at the forefront of diversifying the doc world, offering incredible opportunities for diverse nonfiction storytellers to develop projects while providing pathways for their films to be produced. While we celebrate the fact that there are more diverse documentary filmmakers than ever, we need to recognize that there is still a great need for even more opportunities at the ground level to help support, uplift and nurture talented youth voices in the documentary field. Programs like NeXt Doc are critical because young people of color and those from underrepresented communities are not as exposed to the skills necessary to make docs, and many times they are the people with the most important stories to tell. To ensure financial accessibility, the program is offered at no charge; the only expenses NeXt Doc fellows must cover are travel costs. We have even supported selected filmmakers in running crowdfunding campaigns to cover those costs, if necessary, or, if they are part of a youth media organization, connect with them to help offset travel expenses.

Founded in 2016 by a diverse team of doc filmmakers—myself from Tanzania, Darian Henry from Jamaica and Veronica Medina-Matzner from Brazil—NeXt Doc is a weeklong fellowship that is a partnership of Youth FX and the Carey Institute for Global Good. The program is a unique opportunity for young, diverse documentary filmmakers—an intensive, residential experience, designed to bolster their capacity to succeed professionally and creatively at the beginning stage of their career. The program grew out of many conversations with Carey Institute program manager Rebecca Platel, and brings together the strengths of each organization. For 10 years Youth FX has provided filmmaking programs to empower, inspire and train young people of color from Albany, New York. Films produced in our programs have screened at the top festivals in the country—and, most importantly, have proved to the young producers that being a filmmaker is a tangible goal for them. The Carey Institute for Global Good, located on a 100-acre campus in Rensselaerville, New York, two-and-a-half hours north of New York City, hosts the Logan Nonfiction Program, a residency for nonfiction storytellers from around the world. The Carey Institute provides state-of-the-art facilities, conference rooms, a theater, housing for the week, three meals a day and is surrounded by a nature preserve with a lake and waterfalls. It's an ideal setting that encourages everyone to be fully present and offers space for self-reflection, while facilitating the forming of deep relationships and community-building.

A year after successfully piloting a shortened version of the program in 2016, we applied lessons learned and launched the full-fledged, week-long NeXt Doc fellowship in June 2017, with 15 aspiring doc filmmakers selected out of 45 very strong applicants. Our fellows came from nine different states, four different countries, and represented a wide range of diverse backgrounds. Our award-winning presenting filmmakers were equally diverse: Sam Pollard, Sabaah Folayan and Cecilia Aldarondo. We built our curriculum around four key themes: professional skills development with our presenting filmmakers through master classes, in-depth workshops and Skype seminars; creative exploration of nonfiction storytelling, aesthetics and narrative forms; peer-to-peer exchanges; and community- and network-building.

The core of NeXt Doc is our presenting filmmakers, with each of them screening their latest film in the theater at the Carey's Guggenheim Pavilion, and leading a specific master class related to their work. Pollard, a trailblazer in diversifying the field, screened ACORN and the Firestorm, and offered a deep and comprehensive exploration of documentary film editing while taking us on a journey through his career. He also closed his workshop with a quick pitch session, where each fellow was asked to pitch a project and receive feedback. Pollard has been a mentor to many emerging filmmakers of color, and was a mentor to me producing my second feature, The Throwaways (2014), as well as my current film, Outta The Muck. Folayan screened her film Whose Streets?, and her master class gave an insightful glimpse into her journey as a first-time filmmaker, the importance of community and collaboration with her co-director, Damon Davis, and the power of narrative voice. Aldarondo presented her deeply intimate film Memories of a Penitent Heart, and dug deep into the challenges, risks and transformative power of making such a personal film. When interviewing NeXt Doc fellows at the end of the week, many commented specifically on the amount of knowledge they gained from the master classes, as well as the intimacy of these workshops.

Our dialogue with the presenting filmmakers extended beyond the screenings and master classes into deep conversations over dinner, or late night sessions with Folayan, where fellows screened their short films for her and got personal feedback. These intimate moments are where one feels connected to a larger community, that their voices and their work are part of a collective call and response.

In addition to the films and master classes offered, the NeXt Doc program includes workshops led by our team that explored topics such as project development, writing treatments, budgeting, non-western narrative structures, documentary history, filmmaking ethics, and the importance of critical exploration of power and representation in nonfiction storytelling. We also hosted informative Skype sessions by Nikki Heymann of POV, Doug Block from The D-Word and Brian Storm from MediaStorm. The opportunity to learn from and share ideas with fellow participants is also another program highlight. The process of sharing ideas and receiving critical feedback is a crucial experience for young doc filmmakers to go through and understand. Through scheduled screening sessions of their own short films, NeXt Doc challenges young filmmakers to talk about their process, give and receive critical feedback, and embrace the diversity of responses to their work as opportunities to learn from.

Programs like NeXt Doc are crucial; in my experience working with young people, many do not feel like they have a voice, despite the incredible promise that some of them show. By giving them direct access to filmmakers that look like them, providing insights into some of the more challenging aspects of filmmaking such as treatments, budgets and fundraising, and encouraging them to push creative boundaries, our aim is to bolster their confidence and inspire them to create. Young people are at the forefront of movements across the world, and it is our responsibility to provide them with the chance to have mentorships, artist-in-residence opportunities, having access to things that normally youth wouldn’t have access to.

Given the impact that nonfiction storytelling has on the culture at large, and the agency it has the potential to give under-represented people, who is better equipped to tell stories than those who will be living the future they are shaping? Equitable access to resources has historically been an obstacle to diversity in documentary filmmaking. Networking with others in the field and supporters of documentary film is critical to securing resources, and at NeXt Doc we are connecting young filmmakers to mentors and advisors who have established themselves in the field. These connections form the beginning of their professional network after the weeklong fellowship ends. Our goal is to see NeXt Doc become part of a lineage of similarly minded programs to help break down barriers and give people of color, and other marginalized people, the opportunity to tell their stories, and in essence reclaim their own narratives.

Applications for NeXt Doc 2018 are due by April 2, 2018. For more information visit

Bhawin Suchak is a filmmaker and educator and the founder of NeXt Doc. In 2008 he co-founded Youth FX a program that works with young people of color to teach them technical and creative filmmaking skills.  He is currently in production on his third feature documentary Outta The Muck which is supported by ITVS and Southern Documentary Fund.