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A Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Doc Fund Mentee shares what she learned at Hot Docs 2018

Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Fund recipient Milisuthando "Mili" Bongela discusses her experience participating in the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group mentorship program at the 2018 Hot Docs Festival. 

Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund provides development grants of up to $10,000 CAD and production grants of up to $40,000 CAD to four to 10 projects annually. Each year, up to five funded projects are also invited to participate in a year-long mentorship program, along with private filmmaker labs at Hot Docs and the Durban FimMart/Durban International Film Festival.

You can apply here.

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I’m a journalist by training and for the past four years have been developing a documentary film. I’ve been battling to call myself a filmmaker, let alone fraternise with "real" filmmakers in South Africa, lest I encroach on their territory with my little passion project. I’m generally a confident human being; but working unguided in a new industry, I’ve had to work hard to silence an ever-running program of self-doubt at the back of my mind, coupled with a mild insecurity about being a first-time African and woman filmmaker in a male-dominated industry. Because of this, I’ve kept an unusually low profile and have had a lonely and pretty agonising experience of filmmaking.  

I still can’t fully describe what happened at Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Fund Lab without getting emotional. The most constant emotion I had throughout those eight days was a sense of belonging. I belonged to the documentary community. My story was good enough to be heard. I was good enough to be among the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Doc Fund grantees. The minute these feelings sank in, there was no turning back.  

Being in the filmmakers lab was like being in your favourite class with all of your favourite teachers at the same time. It was a much-needed, all-encompassing upgrade for me.  To be held in a safe space by passionate, talented and beautiful storytellers, alongside a group of fellows who felt like siblings from day one, was something I didn’t know I needed until I was there. Rather than relate to us in a hierarchical structure, the mentors felt like elders sharing knowledge: probing and guiding in ways that I had not experienced until then. I loved being immersed in the stories of the other fellows and they in mine, within what felt like a vortex of unstoppable creativity, gentle critique, radical care, stretching and bending our abilities while rooting us in the foundations of world class filmmaking. The flow of new information coming your way is overwhelming at first but, after a few days, I got into the rhythm and pace of being at a festival. Before I get to that, I just want to say how critical it was to engage with the whole value chain of documentary filmmaking, not just directing. I can’t tell you how invaluable it was to understand how distribution, marketing, producing and pitching works.

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My favourite part of being at the 2018 Hot Docs Festival, besides being able to flash my All-Access pass and get in anywhere, was the Hot Docs Forum—the flagship live-pitch where 20 projects pitch to attract co-production financing. It was like watching real-life TV. Not only was it amazing to see filmmakers sweating and pitching, it was great to learn what commissioners, channels and funders are looking for. Watching films was another highlight, especially because you could bump into the filmmakers at any given moment at the CBC Docs Industry Centre. Dare I say loitering, but just hanging around theatres and industry hubs also meant having spontaneous interactions with people who happened to end up being important connections and potential collaborators. Even though I got a little worn out from saying "My film is about..." to the scores of people throughout the festival, it was useful to practice talking about my story to different people, to gauge responses and to improve my pitch. And it worked. Now that I’m back in Johannesburg, I’m nursing relationships that started at the Happy Hour networking sessions we attended. I’ve already got a Letter of Interest from a distribution company. I’m emailing sales agents and funders who I shook hands with. I’m perfecting my proposal for the future. Most importantly though, I have finally learned to say with conviction: "Hi. My name is Mili and I am a filmmaker."


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