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Hot Docs Jots

documentary Channel Doc Accelerator Alums on Being an Emerging Filmmaker in Canada

Hot Docs Jots presents Emerging Voices, where our documentary Channel Doc Accelerator Program Alums from the last edition of Hot Docs contribute on issues salient to them regarding their filmmaking practice and the business of the industry as an emerging filmmaker. 

Seeking Critical Feedback in a Country of Nice People

Cat Mills (2016 documentary Channel Doc Accelerator program Alum)

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Being an emerging filmmaker is tricky. Not only are you trying to figure out your style and voice, but you’re also drowning in release forms, navigating around complicated delivery checklists and getting cold sweats while troubleshooting E&O applications. On top of the technical and legal stuff, you’re trying to make the most compelling film you can. What is the biggest challenge in making the best film you possibly can?

Getting honest criticism.

 I recently returned to Canada after being an immigrant for few years. There were many challenges I had with living in new countries with different cultures. One of the biggest adjustments involved working with people who didn’t sugarcoat their opinions. The first time a Spaniard told me something was “stupid” I was shocked. “You can’t say that”, I would think. “You’re going to hurt someone’s feelings.” That style of brutal honesty was something I was just not adjusted to, as a polite somewhat passive-aggressive Canadian.  

It took me a year and numerous encounters with the French, Italians, Russians, Lithuanians and Germans, but I finally did get accustomed to it. No one was being rude, or at least not trying to be. They were being honest, and the honesty made me aware of the problems with the project. It also made the final product better.

Getting honest feedback in a country full of nice people is tricky. I rely a great deal on friends, colleagues and family members to review rough cuts and give me feedback about what is confusing, boring, and unnecessary. When you watch an edit hundreds of times you no longer see it. You know the backstory behind each cut, you understand the history of the subject, you create context when perhaps none is being conveyed. It is easy to create something that makes sense to you, and to you alone.

It is amusing to see how people respond to something that they clearly dislike. You can almost see the gears turning in their head, shuffling and arranging words like a puzzle, figuring out a way that they can avoid the uncomfortable confrontation of telling you that you have spent the last year producing a pile of rubbish. 

Here are a few ways to tell if your project isn't good, without people having to tell you that your project isn't good:

1. Silence. People will pretend they didn’t get your email or there will be a long pause before they say anything about your film. This is extremely awkward for everyone involved.

2. They will say it is “neat” or “interesting” without saying anything about whether they enjoyed it.

3. They will ask questions rather than state opinions. This is actually helpful, so run with it.

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Once you’ve established that someone dislikes or doesn’t understand your project, you can get into the specifics: did the story make sense? Did your mind start to wander during certain parts? Did it feel like there was something missing? Was the music or sound design distracting? Do you care about the characters and want them to succeed?  Did it end abruptly?

Getting specific notes will help you pinpoint the problems with your film and give you proper direction in the editing suite. It might also result in you having to do a few re-shoots (thank you, contingency fund!)

No one enjoys giving feedback that is negative, but it is absolutely integral in a world where the creation of media is growing at an exponential rate.  With so much competition out there, if your project is ever going to be seen it needs to be awesome. Remember: though receiving criticism might be a bummer, it is much better than devoting time, energy and money into a project that no one wants to watch.  

So friends, roll up your sleeves and I’ll put my ego on the shelf.

Now, tell me what you really think.

Cat Mills is a graduate of the University of British Columbia, holding a BFA in Film Production. She’s an alumni of The Golden Key International Honour Society and a fellow of the CFTPA Producers Internships program and the documentary Channel Doc Accelerator Program. Cat has recently returned to Canada after living in Europe where she worked in film sales and was filming for a documentary on irregular migration. She has a web series called Wicked & Weird Around the World where she explores the strangest competitions and celebrations, ranging from Toe Wrestling to Crab Racing.

Cat just finished production on FIXED! a short documentary on the Repair Café in Toronto, which won first place in the 2016 Hot Docs Short Film Pitch competition. She is currently shooting for her next project; Big Men, Small Dogs, about the men who are defying gender stereotypes by adopting small, “feminine” dogs.  

About documentary Channel Doc Accelerator:

Accelerate your career with real-world skill development and opportunities within the documentary film, television and digital media industries.

Participants will take part in an intensive Festival-based curriculum and a paid mentorship job training opportunity.

The goal of the program is to foster a diverse new generation of Canadian documentary filmmakers by providing real-world skills development and economic opportunities within the documentary film, television and digital media industries.

Categories: Director's Notebook , Industry Landscape

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