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Director’s Notebook

Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund Recipient and Mentee Sihle Hlophe Takes us on her Journey from South Africa to Hot Docs

It was around this time last year that I began preparing my application for the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund development grant. At the time, I was cautiously optimistic. I knew that I had a solid story, but I was also aware that countless filmmakers from all over Africa would be gunning for the exact same prize. In November 2016, I received the wonderful news that my project, Lobola, A Bride’s True Price, had been selected to receive funding from Hot Docs, along with four other projects from Kenya, Morrocco and Cape Verde. Being from South Africa, I was proud of the fact that, in many ways, my project would be a representative for my country. To my delight I learned that I wouldn’t only be getting a cash grant, but I was also the recipient of a Fellowship. The Fellowship aspect of the program lasts for one year and includes a peer-to-peer mentorship program,travel, accommodation, and accreditation support to attend the Hot Doc-Blue Ice Group Filmmakers Lab during the 2017 Hot Docs Festival, and support to attend the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Durban Lab during the Durban International Film Festival and Durban FilmMart in South Africa.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I feel extremely privileged to have had access to the kind of mentors the program had this year. Our mentors were the Emmy-winning documentary editor and producer Sabrina S. Gordon, Oscar-nominated editor and director Karen Hardy and documentary producer-extraordinaire Mila Aung-Thwin. These mentors were with us during the Filmmakers Lab in Toronto and they will also be with us at the Durban Lab in July, 2017. They are only one email away and are there to provide us with guidance on key milestones, story notes, information about the international documentary market and so much more. The mentors are also there to advise us on issues such as story development, funding applications and selecting our key creative teams. I am already using this resource to my advantage by asking the mentors to read my proposal documents, view my footage and improve my pitching skills. Spending time with them in Toronto challenged and inspired me to pursue my project with even more vigour than ever before.     

The most significant highlight of being a Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund grantee was flying to Toronto to attend the Filmmakers Lab. I’m sure the other grantees will agree that we crammed more activities into seven days than most people cram into a couple of weeks. Each grantee had a personal schedule, with activities such as attending classes, workshops, industry events and watching 20 projects from all over the world pitch their projects to broadcasters and funders at the Hot Docs Forum. On the first day of the Lab, we showed the mentors and facilitators our development footage and pitched our projects. Each project was dissected and discussed at length, and we were all given critical feedback to improve our stories. We learned about framing stories and story structure from program facilitator Juan Baquero and mentor Sabrina S. Gordon. The day ended with the grantees and mentors getting to know each other over a scrumptious dinner at a popular Thai restaurant. Day two was dedicated to the art of pitching; pitching maestro Mila Aung-Thwin shared his vast experience with the us and we spent the rest of the day refining our pitches, definitely not for the fainthearted. The night ended on a great note when we were introduced to the Blue Ice Group team, the Fund’s namesake, during an intimate dinner at a French restaurant downtown.

On day three, we had the pleasure of attending a lectures by Karen Harley, who taught us about narrative structure through editing, and Robert Greene, who spoke about expressions in documentary. We were treated like VIP’s at the Doc Mogul Luncheon, where veteran documentary filmmaker Monique Simard was honored for her work in documentary. The day ended with the Emerging Filmmakers Party, where we got to mingle with filmmakers who are part of the other Hot Docs Labs taking place during the Festival: the Corus-Diverse Voices Scholarship and the documentary Channel Accelerator program. On day four and five we attended the Hot Docs Forum, a dynamic two-day pitching event that stimulates international co-production financing for projects at various levels of development and production. During the Forum, I absorbed everything like a sponge and got better insight into how the minds of the broadcasters and funders work. We also had invaluable one-on-one time with the mentors. These one-on-one sessions were instrumental in determining the next deliverables for our projects, and for preparing us for the Durban Lab in July.

The final day of the Lab was also one of the most enriching. We had the pleasure of being schooled by four industry heavyweights: Kathleen McInnis, Heidi Fleisher, Julie Goldman and Tracie Holder. Kathleen McInnis’s lecture on Festival Strategy really opened my eyes to the business of film festivals and my role in the business as a filmmaker. If I had had this lecture 10 years ago, my career might have panned out completely differently. Heidi Fleisher’s lecture about the business of docs made me realize that I need to revisit my project’s funding model. During Julie Goldman’s lecture about producing documentaries we explored the roles of the executive producer and the creative producer in great detail. The day ended with Tracie Holder’s lecture about proposal packaging and its role in the creative process. She taught something very important: proposal writing is not only a means of raising funds, it is also a means of refining and crafting the story. She also taught us a great deal about how the minds of funders work. I have already noticed some positive changes in how I approach proposal writing.

In true Hot Docs style, the Filmmakers Lab was concluded with a night of karaoke organized by Hot Docs’ awesome industry funds manager Heidi Tao Yang, who became like a second mother to us during our time in Toronto. I came back to Johannesburg invigorated and raring to go. I’m sure I’ve said this a dozen times already, but I am eternally grateful to have been granted this wonderful opportunity. I am currently in the process of getting ready for the Durban Lab, where we will build on what we learned in Toronto and participate in the Durban FilmMart (DFM). DFM provides selected African filmmakers with the opportunity to pitch film projects to leading financiers and facilitates networking opportunities for African and international filmmakers to form future alliances. I would encourage all African filmmakers to apply for the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund. It is a deeply enriching experience that will add great value to you as a documentary filmmaker and to your documentary film. In my opinion, the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group is one of the few organizations that are truly committed to enabling more African filmmakers to tell their own stories and contributing to the development of a new generation of African documentary filmmakers. 

 By Sihle Hlophe.

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