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Hot Docs Jots

Emerging Voices: Seeking Critical Feedback in a Country of Nice People

Hot Docs Jots presents Emerging Voices, where past Doc Accelerator participants discuss their experience with filmmaking and the doc industry.

Applications for the 2019 Doc Accelerator lab are open, with a final deadline of January 17.

Cat Mills, 2016 Doc Accelerator program participant

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.

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's short documentary FIXED!, about the Repair Café in Toronto, won first place in the 2016 Hot Docs Short Film Pitch competition.

About Doc Accelerator Emerging Filmmaker Lab:

Accelerate your career at Hot Docs Festival with real-world skill development and in-depth labs for emerging and sophomore Canadian talent.

Doc Accelerator fellows will participate in a bespoke private lab during the Hot Docs Festival where they will learn from industry experts and engage in hands-on workshops before participating in the Festival’s full slate of industry programming. The program will focus on skills training and career advancement with a goal to foster an inclusive new generation of Canadian documentary filmmakers.

Applications for the 2019 Doc Accelerator lab are open, with a final deadline of January 17.

Categories: Director's Notebook , Industry Landscape


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