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Hot Docs Jots

Al Jazeera Witness & St. Louis Superman

During Hot Docs Festival, April 30 to May 10, up to six Canadian filmmaking teams will pitch their short doc projects to a live audience and panel of judges at the Hot Docs Al Jazeera Short Pitch. The competition will award at least one winner with up to $50,000 USD for a full commission, and the winning project(s) will premiere on the Witness strand across Al Jazeera branded platforms, including television, online and apps.

Hot Docs interviewed Canadian filmmaker Sami Khan, who co-directed and co-produced the Oscar-nominated Al Jazeera Witness short film St. Louis Superman. Sami talks to us about what it was like to collaborate with Al Jazeera on this powerful and intimate story of the rise of community activist and Missouri State Representative Bruce Franks Jr.


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Tell me about St. Louis Superman and why you decided to approach Al Jazeera Witness as a collaborator on this project?

We were approached by Witness not vice versa. Smriti made a beautiful film called A Suitable Girl, which caught the attention of Witness. Smriti and I are close friends who had formed a kinship trying to get our films made and just fighting the racism endemic in the film industry. So when Witness approached Smriti, she forwarded me the email right away. Witness gave us a few themes that they were interested in exploring in the United States, and then Smriti and I tried to figure out the story and the character to lead us in.

What does AJ look for in their observational documentaries that made St. Louis Superman the right fit for Witness?

Witness needs compelling stories with dynamic characters—any documentary does. But Witness does a better job than most because they are in constant dialogue with a huge global audience—millions and millions of loyal viewers around the world. That engagement is really startling in an age when other broadcasters have ossified and continue to make rather bland and conservative documentaries. For Witness, it's not enough to have an issue you're interested in; you need to find a character and a story that will resonate with people. Obviously, Bruce Franks Jr., the participant in St. Louis Superman is an unbelievably compelling character. So it was a no-brainer for us to tell his story. We just had to convince Bruce to agree.

What was like to work with Al Jazeera Witness? What did that collaborative process look like from beginning to end?

Witness will push you hard creatively and journalistically but ultimately they give you the freedom to tell the story you want to tell. Witness respects filmmakers and champions them. They don’t treat filmmakers like disposable commodities like so many in the industry do.

The diversity at Witness was also really important to us and informs how they collaborate. For us, being filmmakers of color, who faced (and still face) a lot of discrimination in the film industry, we're so thankful to Witness for their support. You look at the people who work at Witness and they have similar stories to our own. The Witness team is from every corner of the globe. They faced adversity, covered global conflicts, and they have come together to tell these urgent stories.

Are there any challenges you faced or considerations you had to make in adapting your specific characters, story, and the story's larger themes for this format (a 25-minute runtime)?

Runtime wasn’t so much a factor for us; the bigger issue was figuring out the sequencing of the scenes and building a narrative that was true to Bruce's story. We had incredible vérité thanks to the trust Bruce gave us, but without the proper structure our film wouldn't have resonated. Witness's guidance in helping us build that edit puzzle was instrumental to the film's success.

Do you have any tips for the teams chosen for the Hot Docs Al Jazeera Short Pitch? They will pitch in front of commissioning editors from AJ Witness, as well as a jury of short film professionals and an audience of their peers. What can they do to ensure their project is in the best place to be considered for up to $50K from AJ Witness for a full commission?

The best advice I can give to filmmakers pitching Witness is to know your documentary deeply on an emotional and story level. That's quite difficult when you're in the early stages but, even if your conception of the story or characters changes, it’s important to have storytelling confidence that will make people understand why your film needs to exist at this very moment.

I think it’s important to talk about your approach to the filmmaking process, on a personal and political level. I know that Witness really listens to how filmmakers frame their language. If the filmmaker is talking more about themselves than the participants in their doc, than that will be a red flag for Witness.

Filmmakers should also be prepared to answer questions on race and representation, as well as mental health issues. More filmmakers need to understand the way their documentaries can be entertaining for audiences but deeply traumatic for the participants. Witness films are rigorously journalistic but, whether it’s the story of a former guerrilla in the Colombian jungle or a Venezuelan smuggler, they're also known for the great sensitivity with which they’re told.

Learn more about Hot Docs Al Jazeera Short Pitch at the Hot Docs Festival this year. Application close March 13.

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