A Morning with Rama Rau - Hot Docs Filmmaker Series

Hot Docs, you are spoiling me WAY too much. Patricia Rozema - Alethea Arnaquq-Baril - Christina Jennings - and now Rama Rau!


Hearing her talk was electrifying. She was honest, decisive, and human like the rest of us struggling filmmakers.

"You get as much as you put into a film" - she said.

I'd never thought of it that way, but it makes total sense. As a filmmaker you have to find a balance between keeping distance from your story and also being passionate about it.

My favourite thing Rama said is that their is "no manual." And THAT'S something they don't teach you in film school. Each story demands a different kind of treatment.

What's her secret? Rama admitted that they way she is able to get so close with her subjects and foster a trusting relationship is by giving half herself. This is the part where she mixes her passion and distance together. She said, "it isn't about money. It's just what I am genuinely interested in doing."

Then she laughed and said to all us filmmakers in the audience, "honestly if you can do something else, do it..."

How does she connect with a story? This part was my favourite. She said, "the story puts a hook in me and pulls me. I want to do this for the audience."

She really emphasizes this back and forth energy that is transferring between her and the subjects and then her and the audience. It was never about "me". It was always WE.

Part of making a successful film is making the themes universal. You have to first ask yourself, is there one specific thing in my story that I can make speak to people?

Finally, the honesty came out. She talked about being a women, being brown, and being a director. Her first look into the film industry was being on Bollywood sets in Mumbai. She said you really have to act like a man to be respected (unfortunately). Coming to Canada, though, afforded her the opportunity to tell the kind of stories she was longing for: those with female protagonists.

"You learn failure."

That is one lesson I will carry with me moving forward in my own career. Thank you again Hot Docs for bringing this inspiring bad ass woman to the theatre for a talk.

If I had known about Patricia, Alethea, Christina, or Rama growing up, I think I would have jumped at being a filmmaker much quicker. Four amazing role models, successful in their own way.

Looking forward to all of their amazing next projects!

- Jenn

A Night with Ann Shin and Gerry Flahive - DOC Masters Series Class

As a DOC member now for the second year running, I am continually thrilled at the level of professional programming that they offer. From hands on courses to talks with local talent, it is always a pleasure to get together with people in the documentary community and hear success stories.


This time, I had the pleasure to hear from Ann Shin, a Torontonian and extremely talented filmmaker, and moderator Gerry Flahive, a top producer involved with NFB projects.

Gerry led the conversation for the evening discussing all the available platforms that are available to filmmakers today. Ann Shin says the best way to determine how to tell the story starts with understanding the story itself: the "WHY" factor. Determining the heart of the story and then working outwards.

"I want to move people" - Ann Shin says to the crowd.

Ann Shin has a background in literature and has published poetry of her own. Poetry helps her distill emotion, she says, which perhaps offers her a unique lens to see story through.

Once you have determined the heart of the story, you can decide on the medium: a documentary is a cinematic story / interpretation of an event. An interactive project (VR) asks one question, usually one part of a story, and forces the viewer to feel in that moment what the subjects feel. Then it asks them to make a choice. The interactive should solve the question. A game or website can be a companion to the feature length doc or it can stand on its own today. HIGH RISE is a great example of a web documentary that stands on its own, offering the viewer a different experience and non-linear story line. 

Ann described this process of deciding on a medium in scientific terms: "pretend a story is like a liquid. You can pour the liquid into an mould (medium) and the shape will always be different." 

Ann much prefers a cinematic approach to her storytelling versus relying solely on verite (a journalistic approach). Verite will not always capture emotion and it is impossible to always be where the action is. At that point you have to question: okay how do I tell the story now?

In regards to her short film, My Enemy, My Brother, the story about how this film came together is very interesting. It wasn't always planned as a short. In fact, Ann pitched it as a feature length doc but no one budged with funding. Then her producer asked her to apply to BRAVO fact, which had a 15 minute limit. This forced her to pick what was truly important in her story. It was introduced at a few festivals and simply went viral. It screened at Tribeca, SWSX, and many others. Ann realized how potent a short form was on its own. It was shortlisted to win an Oscar!

The story doesn't end here, Ann has continued to find ways of telling the story through a documentary web series. She has also re-written her feature length documentary, realizing how the story has changed and even strengthened over time. 

Ann and Gerry talk about some of the current dilemmas with new technology, the "need to producer across all platforms" for every project. 

Again they both suggest that you have to consider four main areas when converting an idea into  a project:

  1. what's at the heart?
  2. who is the audience?
    1. bridges personal motivation with the world
  3. who will support and fund the project?
    1. support: broadcaster
    2. fund: financial, helps realize the project
  4. how will it be marketed?
    1. what is relevant?
    2. be active
    3. using SM to build audience

Gerry also points out that it is imperative to dig deep into research,

"find your storytelling prism."

Part of the creative process is understanding how to measure success. With interactive, it is about understanding that people will spend no more than 5 minutes at a time online. That is why it is important in the creation process to understand how to tell the story that encourages people to continue coming back. With a web series, each episode has to be written and edited with a cliffhanger, encouraging people to stay tuned and watch next week's episode. Part of creating that success is having a good community manager (online / social media). A documentary film has to elicit empathy in the viewer, and can be enjoyed / viewed all at once.

The night was wonderful, both Gerry and Ann were wonderful speakers and excellent creators in their own right.

Until the next master series class

- Jenn

Female Film Crush | Angela Barnhardt Thomas

One of the many people I got to spend time with at TIFF 2015 this year was a woman named Angela Barnhardt Thomas.

Angela Barnhardt Thomas and Me at TIFF 2015

She is the producer of Waiting for Mamu (2013), a doc that travelled world wide to raise money for Mamu's school.

Social issues docs have the power to educate, demystify, and bring awareness to an otherwise ignorant viewer. This doc has since successfully raised over 1 million dollars.


This is the power of cinema! And it is achievable when hard working / passionate people like Angela are a part of the team. 

Being fairly new to the industry and using TIFF as a platform to meet with established film professionals, I was blown away at how approachable and knowledgable Angela was. Not only did she patiently answer all my questions, but she even made script suggestions and helped me understand the industry better.

It was a true pleasure attending TIFF programming with her and we were able to discuss a variety of topics on break. Angela and I also talked about her current project, a doc about Charles James, and I am so thrilled to see that subject bloom into a feature length video.

Click HERE for more info from the MET exhibit from 2014.

Sometimes it is about these chance meetings in life that really provide us the support and inspiration we need to be successful. And it is the people we surround ourselves with that help us define who we are and where we are headed.

I am happy to call Angela a friend and look forward to future meetings together. NYC here I come!

- Jenn

A Night with Noah Bingham, The Secret Trial 5

In my final week Bootcamp Producer course with the DOC Institute, Toronto, I had the privilege to hear the story of Noah Bingham's extraordinary journey.

Noah Bingham is the producer of The Secret Trial 5, a documentary that had its festival premiere at Hot Docs 2014 and a theatre premiere the following year.

A quick snippet of the synopsis from the website:

"Imagine spending years in prison without being charged with a crime or knowing exactly what you're accused of. A film about the human impact of the “War on Terror,” The Secret Trial 5 is a sobering examination of the Canadian government’s use of security certificates, a Kafkaesque tool that allows for indefinite detention without charges, based on evidence not revealed to the accused or their lawyers ... Through the experience of the detainees and their families, the film raises poignant questions about the balance between security and liberty."

The journey started in 2009. Noah's school friend Amar Wala, director & producer, had just finished creating a short film about one of the families described above. The film was called The Good Son

Both were so excited by the intense story and were interested in developing the idea into a feature length doc. The project began with a "lean production" and an "out-of-their-pocket funding" model.

Both wanted to pitch to a broadcaster to source traditional funding for their feature. They were rejected and never back. Not willing to give up, they sourced other methods to raise money. This propelled them to create a kickstarter / crowdfunding campaign. The first campaign, largely supported by friends and family, raised enough for them to continue production and pay for the website and promo video. Noah Bingham showed us the video on their first crowd funding campaign and I was immediately pulled into the story and awed by the creativity and way the story was told. 

Production continued. Two years later, Noah and Amar launched another crowdfunding campaign. After building a community of followers and interested activists, this campaign grew to be very successful and they were able to pitch their idea at Hot Docs with the Cuban Hat. While not winning the final votes, they won over the industry and created enthusiasm.

This led to contacts which led to money being invested into their film. They got an office space, editing suite and continue the film into post.

Still no broadcaster and no solid investor that would have otherwise made their lives a lot easier. However, Noah did remark how grateful he was to have been allowed to see the full process from start to finish due to budget constraints, because everyone was wearing multiple hats.  

Three years into production, Arts Council Toronto came in and offered funding. Noah and the team headed to DOC Ignite (2013) and reached their goal, receiving more funding and reaching new audiences.

With a film in post and needing monetary support, Noah approached Telefilm Micro Budget. They were able to apply because

  1. Amar had only been out of school for three years, and
  2. they planned on carrying out a hybrid distribution strategy:
  • both in theatres and digitally online.

With the film done, The Secret Trial 5 became a Hot Docs 2014 Festival Selection and sold out all three nights. They successfully completed a deal with Blue Ice Docs, a distributor. The film was a greater hit in the festival than it was in theatres at the Bloor Cinema. There are no monetary assets given to the filmmakers at the Bloor.

Noah wanted to create an even greater buz and expand their thriving online community further. They launched a third successful crowdfunding campaign. This gave Noah and Amar enough to travel around the country touring their movie.

You can check out their movie online here, for one small payment of $9.00.

This story proved to me that through hard work, commitment, and dedication, you really can bring your ideas to life with support and creativity. 

Congratulations Noah, Amar, and the rest of the team! This is one story I will never forget and look forward to diving head first into your film.

Click HERE to purchase the film online.

- Jenn

A Night with Nickolas De Pencier: DOC Masters' Series Class

One of the many organizations I have joined this year is the Documentary Organization of Canada. I came across this gem at Hot Docs Film Festival 2015.

DOC offers programming to emerging film professionals for a variety of roles.

Technicolour studio

This month's masters series class was on cinematography and lead by Nickolas De Pencier. He is known for his TIFF success, Watermark (2013). 

Nickolas graduated from school with a BA' in English Lit. and Art History. Growing up as a photographer who developed b / w photos from film, he carried this love over to working on set in a variety of roles. 

Laughing to himself, he says he never chose film as a career. Especially not documentary. He started working on feature film sets for drama and fiction. From PA'ing to grip, he tried out every role to get a good sense of the entire process.

"Start small and be excited about everything" - Nickolas.

On his spare time, he worked on dance films. His roommate at the time knew a group of dancers and Nickolas developed his cinematographic eye through fun experimentation.

After deciding that fiction film was not a long term career for him, he jumped ship to documentary filmmaking. Not only did he change subject matter, but he made the leap from film to digital.

My favourite part about De Pencier's talk was his philosophies, some of which I will share with you below:

"Rare link between subject and what you are reporting"
"Authentic subject = unobtrusive cameraman"
"Use what is there, the mechanics of production. The smaller the better"
"creatively owning camera is better"
"Ask yourself what can this camera do..."
"ethics of DOC filmmaking: good practice leading to stronger material"
"there is a difference between an authentic relationship in film and an expose film"

He then shared two of his personal mantras that I shall carry forward with me for life:

"never move until it improves on stillness"
"something human is more dear to me than all the world"

Nickolas ended his talk by addressing questions from the audience, one of which asked about the future of DOC filmmaking in terms of finding funding. He suggested that the current model of sponsorship may change in five years. Most DOC full length films attract a niche audience, meaning it is hard to make a solid living off of it. He has, though, and is living proof. Perhaps that generation is dying out slowly but it is good to see someone who is able to make it while still inhabiting the outskirts of the filmmaking industry. Further, as a filmmaking you might have to weigh in whether your sponsor has the same agenda as you or is looking to improve business through product placement and ads. This can affect the authenticity of your film and whether your film receives funding or not. It is always a delicate line to balance on.

Thank you DOC for such a great evening spent at Technicolour (Toronto) and the chance to play around with top gear sponsored by Vistek.

- Jenn