Apr 12, 2023
The Festival’s 2023 Mel Novikoff Award, named for the legendary San Francisco exhibitor and awarded to those who enhance appreciation of world cinema, goes to Firelight Media. Founded by award-winning filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith out of a desire to make their filmmaking lives more sustainable, the organization has moved well beyond that scope as the nonprofit expanded to support emerging documentary filmmakers of color. SFFILM Festival programmer Amber Love, whose short film, Lifetimes, was part of Firelight Media’s 2022 collection of regional shorts, HOMEGROWN: Future Visions, will engage Nelson and Smith in conversation as part of the awards presentation, followed by a screening of Nelson’s Emmy-nominated documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
“It’s a thrill,” Smith says of sharing a stage with a filmmaker who has taken part in a Firelight Media program.
“And kind of surreal, but it’ll be fun,” Nelson adds.
How did Firelight Media begin?
Love is one of over 200 filmmakers that have come under the Firelight Media umbrella to date. The organization became operational in 2000. Nelson and Smith married and wanted to work together but it wasn’t practical given the nature of documentary filmmaking where projects can take years to reach fruition and raising money is always a struggle. It is a never-ending cycle. Forming a nonprofit production company to even out the highs and the lows of funding made collaborating on projects possible.
“That was really the inspiration for the organization,” Smith says. “The irony, of course, is we’re now supporting other people for the same reasons. That is still very much part of what we do. One can make the argument that documentary makers should be able to make a living making their work because what they’re doing is so important.”
In 2008, the company split into two arms. Firelight Films was born as a for-profit documentary production company under Nelson’s leadership. As president of nonprofit Firelight Media, Smith oversees the programs designed to help launch up-and-coming filmmakers, including its Documentary Lab; The Goundwork Regional Lab, which convenes in underserved communities to introduce the documentary world and apprise new filmmakers of opportunities that exist for them; and much more, including funding programs.
Smith says mentoring emerging makers was something that she and Nelson had been doing all along and it is something she says is common with documentary filmmakers. As that kind of work increased, it became evident that they should institutionalize the work they were doing.
“We built a structure and a framework to support other filmmakers, and that is what became the documentary arm,” Smith says. “That was the evolution of that.”
“Part of the realization came when I made a film called Shattering the Silence, which was about academics of color in major institutions all across the country,” Nelson says. “One of the things they constantly told us was that there was an extra expectation on them to mentor people. If you’re a Black professor, you’re supposed to mentor all the Black students you could gather. If you’re a Latino academic somewhere, you’re supposed to work with all the Spanish-speaking people. It made me think about that, that that was an expectation of filmmakers of color, and that there was a way to institutionalize that mentoring we were all doing anyway and that filmmakers would benefit if the thing was institutionalized and there was a structure.”
The Importance of Documentary Filmmaking Today
One thing Smith emphasizes is that while some think this is a golden age for documentaries, the ones that have the easiest time getting funding are celebrity-driven or true crime. The type of serious documentaries that Nelson and Smith make, like 2021’s Oscar®-nominated Attica (written and co-directed by Nelson and executive produced by Smith), and the kind of work being done by makers in Firelight Media’s programs still face challenges. Yet, the work they do is vital, particularly in light of mainstream media’s often shallow reportage and state governments, such as Florida, that are outright hostile to teaching subjects as basic as American history.
“We used to argue 20 years ago that documentaries played an important role because of mergers and the corporatization of newspapers and radio and television news,” Smith says. “But now, in some states, I think documentaries are going to be the only way you know anything about history. That makes the work all the more important. It was already important but now it is critical. It’s one of the things that gives me a powerful sense of mission.”
“It’s a cliché but we have to look at history in a clear light, the light of day, as we say. It’s just really that fundamental,” adds Nelson. “History doesn’t blame anybody; it doesn’t shame anybody.”
“One of the things that film does is introduce you to subjects in a very entertaining way. You might not want to read a 700-page book but you’ll watch a documentary that’s an hour long or two hours. You start to learn a little bit, then maybe you will want to read that 700-page book…As the media keeps shrinking, documentaries become more and more important, where you look behind the story and investigate the news. TV news, cable news are not doing that at this point.”
What began as a way for married filmmakers to work together and support their family has grown into something so much bigger as Firelight Media helps so many others achieve their own ambitions. When Smith and Nelson look back over the past 23 years, how do they feel?
“I feel really proud,” says Smith. “I think a lot of organizations that started in 2000 are not around anymore. But we are and we plan to be here on into the future, for the next 50 years. Because the reason we exist, it’s not going to go away. So, we plan to be here.”
“When we started out, there were two things that we felt. One is that this thing, Firelight Media, was sustainable, that we could raise money and sustain it,” says Nelson. “It’s been different. It’s very different from making a film where you raise the money and you’re done and now you make the film. This is an ongoing process, raising money.
“Two, and probably more importantly, there are filmmakers out there who are really talented and have great stories to tell. We can help them tell their stories. They can stand on our backs and make the leap. Every year we find more talented filmmakers than in the last. It’s been an incredible ride.”
Mel Novikoff Award: Firelight Media + “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”: 3:15 PM, Sat., April 15, CGV San Francisco. Click here for further information and tickets.
About the Author
Pam Grady is a freelance writer, whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, and other publications. She also has her own web site.
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