Hot Docs Jots

Soko Sam on being a Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund recipient and festival mentee


Soko Sam is a 2017 Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund recipient and Festival mentee. He also pitched his project Softie in one-to-one Deal Maker meetings. 

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It was midday and I had missed a morning session on understanding the film festival circuit. I asked a friend “How did it go?.” They looked at me and started a response, “It was…” they did not finish the sentence. They broke down in tears. I tell you this story because it is emblematic of my few days at the 2017 Hot Docs Festival. 

 I will say it like many before me, documentary filmmaking is not for the fainthearted. I’ve been making one film for the past three years and every day is a struggle to figure out whether you have done enough or if there is still more to go. To make it this far, nothing helps more than to be surrounded by a community that not only understands what you are going through but can also make light of your tribulations. The Festival provided such a strong community for me and others attending, like my friend who was crying for absolute joy.

 If you have never been to Hot Docs, this is the premiere event for any documentary filmmaker and enthusiast. Toronto is one of the friendliest cities I have ever visited. Nothing to do with the cliché, every Canadian I met was really nice. It did help that I arrived in the afternoon, the sun was shining, there was barely any traffic and city looked chilled.

 It’s also the same city that has ‘The Real Jerk’ where Drake and Rihanna Shot one of their popular music videos. I like Toronto.

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 I will share my experience in three stories. I've told the first of my friend in tears. The second is based on the weather. I come from a country that is relatively temperate. We only know two seasons: when it rains and when it doesn’t. I arrived with the sun shining, but the weather quickly changed. Every evening we had the opportunity to go to  Hot Docs Happy Hour. This is a social and networking opportunity, perhaps a daunting task to those who are not only afraid to talk to people, but also who don't have a good grasp of articulating their projects. My first Happy Hour was scary; I mumbled my conversation and, at points, ended up sitting in the warmest part of the space trying to figure out hour to tell my story better.

 It's one thing to know what you are filming, but it’s another to explain it to people. Particularly people who don't have as deep an understanding of the context as myself, having been immersed for the last three years. I was humbled to be selected to receive a Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund grant, where I met six extraordinary individuals, the other recipients of the Fund. We all thought we had a good grasp of our projects until we had to explain them to each other. You could see the misunderstandings build up as we all got a sense that perhaps we need had gaps in our storytelling and, perhaps, our stories themselves. Just like the weather, I was not used to my story needing to change at a moment’s notice.

 In one afternoon, my story changed three times for the better, and I started feeling better telling my story. I could already see myself improving; we all could. We were no longer afraid of questions that start with why' and 'what.' I started looking forward to Happy Hour, and started to introduce myself to people. The weather stopped bothering me as well.  

 If it's not clear yet, I had never pitched my film to anyone formally before. In addition to receiving a Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund grant and taking part in the mentorship program, I was lucky to get into Hot Docs Deal Maker, a one-to-one meeting program for which only 60 projects are chosen by a selection committee. These are a 15-minute “speed dating” meetings where you are matched with an assortment of 65 different broadcasters and funders to discuss your project. The many meetings I had brought to light the many challenges my story had. I could explain my story well but I realized my visual aid was not helping me. My palms were sweaty and my head was buzzing. I would honestly apologize to those whom I had first meetings with—I was terrible. But after that experience, it was clear what I needed to do: I spent that evening changing my visual aids, and began to have much better meetings and received better feedback.

I later learned that doing this was a gamble, but like many people I met with, I am obsessed with my story. I will go to great lengths to make sure this story is told. I think we all need a bit of obsession to tell the stories we experience every day. We struggle every day to tell stories that are memorable and impactful. Most of us don't get the opportunity to do it but the few of us that do should make it count. The world has so many narratives, and any opportunity to tell something unknown should be embraced.

Hot Docs provided the opportunity to experience different stories and encouraged me to keep going. The more we say, the more we educate and innovate. I encourage anyone, particularly from places where unidirectional viewpoints are prevalent, to get out there and try to inform the world. There are many spaces where you will be welcomed, and Hot Docs is perhaps the biggest.

Categories: Director's Notebook

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