International Documentary Filmmaking Laboratories: A Practical Guide

International Documentary Filmmaking Laboratories Credit Margaret Thompson
Credit: Margaret Thompson | Courtesy of the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM)

There’s hardly a better way to get a documentary project to travel than to take part in an international laboratory. These are excellent occasions for filmmakers to sharpen their expertise through workshops while exposing themselves to funding and partnership opportunities. All good things, all good things… But they still have to be selected. Here are some tips to submit a successful application. 

Audrey-Ann Dupuis-Pierre is the producer of a documentary on singer Lhasa de Sela currently in development over at Métafilms. When the time came for her to participate in a workshop on pitching, she did not turn to major festivals such as Eurodoc or Tribeca; she chose to court Mexico’s Los Cabos festival.

“It was an obvious choice for us,” the producer explains. “The story is set in Mexico, so we wanted to find a Mexican co-producer. We wanted to better understand the funding opportunities available to international projects. We wanted to meet people who could help us in the field.”

This strategic choice echoes a piece of advice Toni Bell, filmmaker services manager of the International Documentary Association (IDA), gave at a workshop titled ‘All About International Labs‘ during the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) in November 2019. “Those who don’t do their research always apply to the same festivals: Sundance and Tribeca. Sundance receives more than 17,000 applications […] and selects perhaps 200 documentaries. Your chances of getting into Sundance may not be that high. But there are a lot of other festivals to consider.”

Opening up your horizons

Toni Bell cites the abundance of thematic festivals that already exist as examples, some of which are dedicated “exclusively to documentaries” while others have a “cultural or ethnic” focus. “Someone in the world wants to see your film,” assures Bell. You simply need to open up your horizons.

But how to figure it out? “If you’re looking for a fund in the United States or Europe, I suggest you use our database as a starting point,” she continues, inviting documentary filmmakers to visit the Other Grants Directory section of the IDA’s website.

“We maintain an extensive database of more than 300 funds, laboratories and workshops dedicated to documentaries. You can search according to the type of documentary filmmaker you are: your ethnicity, whether you’re emerging or mid-career, or the phase of the project.”

Filmfreeway is another reference site. “Filmfreeway is a great tool for finding a festival,” says Toni Bell. “You can search by time of year, theme, style, or format — short or feature film, new media, etc. — and by time of year, theme, style, or format.”

How advanced is your project?

In addition to the choice of festival, filmmakers should consider their project’s stage of development. Is there a key moment in the development cycle where it is best to apply to an international laboratory?

“It all depends on the type of workshop,” says Isabelle Couture, a producer with Catbird Productions who took part in laboratories at the Berlinale Talents and Eurodoc. “If the focus is on creation, I think one can get there very early. You can then see this experience as an opportunity for discovery and professional development.”

“If the workshop focuses on funding,” she says, “then it’s best to submit a clear project. It’s also important to know that it’s very difficult to get international funding if you don’t already have committed partners at home.”

For her part, Audrey-Ann Dupuis-Pierre stresses caution: “At the development stage, a project is still very fragile. You don’t want to expose it too quickly to too many people without it having reached maturity, an identity and a signature.”

Presenting your material in its best light

During her RIDM workshop, Toni Bell presented a number of do’s and don’ts — useful tips for documentary filmmakers about to complete their applications. Her first piece of advice? “Please don’t be vague. The most common mistake is not being specific enough in the information you provide. Don’t just tell us what you’re going to do, tell us how you’re going to do it. We understand that it can change along the way, but we want to get a sense of what you’re going to do. We want details, not generalities.”

Her second piece of advice is to follow the instructions. “Especially when you’re asking for money. If they want a paragraph about something, the limit is one paragraph. Do not send additional, unsolicited material. The IDA is very strict about that. Our submission process is very clear and you can ask questions by email. When a festival receives thousands of applications, they reduce the number of applications first by eliminating those that do not comply [with the requirements].”

Isabelle Couture acknowledges the challenge of conciseness in drafting an application: “The application is not very lengthy,” she explains. “The challenge is to synthesize. It has to be concise, clear and complete at the same time. It’s a difficult exercise.”

When the project is sufficiently advanced, it may be possible to include a teaser in the file. The ‘Doc Ignite Workshop: International Teaser Trailer Creation‘ showcased during the RIDM dealt precisely with that subject. “The teaser should not be confused with the trailer ― they are two very different things,” stresses Selin Murat, the workshop’s organizer. “The trailer sells a film, it invites an audience to go to the cinema. As for the teaser, it is aimed at industry professionals. In the teaser, we try to make the visual language, the subject and the author’s point of view understood.”

It can be a short scene — exposing an issue or character — which will then be put into context in the application form. Selin Murat advises against presenting raw, unedited material. “The visual language must be extremely well represented in the clip. In other words, the teaser must resemble the film to come. Otherwise, I advise against including it.”

Staying true to oneself

Of course, when you submit an application, you want to impress. Can one overdo it? Audrey-Ann Dupuis-Pierre suggests staying true to oneself is key. “Some platforms can be intimidating, especially when you’re starting out and you meet seasoned filmmakers with 30 or 40 years of experience. The only advice I can give is to stay true to yourself and show your projects to the best of your abilities. After all, people are there to welcome candidates and help them out.”

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