MPI’s 2021 Documentary Lab Kicks Off

April 22, 2021

MPI’s Documentary Development and Production Lab gets underway this month, beginning with the Documentary Storytelling Workshop where selected filmmakers will hone and develop their initial documentary pitches for a chance to have their project acquired and produced by MPI.

Designed to help filmmakers find the story in their footage, the workshop addresses ways to develop character, craft compelling story arcs, and strike an honest, compelling balance between story and argument. Participants will learn from numerous industry leaders in the documentary space including award-winning documentary writer and producer Mark Monroe (The Dissident, Icarus, The Cove, Biggest Little Farm) and Oscar, Emmy, and Peabody Award-winning filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine (Life According to Sam, War/Dance).

Laura Waters Hinson, director of the award-winning MPI-supported documentaries Dog Days and Mama Rwanda, will helm the workshop. Laura is an assistant professor in American University’s Film and Media Arts Division of the School of Communication and serves as the division’s social impact coordinator and director of the Community Voice Lab. She is also the founder of the DC-based Image Bearer Pictures. 

In anticipation of the upcoming workshop, MPI sat down with Laura to discuss her processes as a documentarian and to get her advice for this year’s Lab participants.

How do you decide what subjects to tackle as a documentary filmmaker?
Deciding which subjects to tackle as a doc filmmaker is one of the most challenging aspects of the profession as I’m drawn to so many stories! Some diagnostic questions I ask to whittle down my ideas are: Do the characters have high personal stakes? Are they on a clear journey with a natural end point that I can follow visually? Is there a subtext/theme that matters to me personally? Will the viewer be moved emotionally by this story? If the stakes are high, the story visually interesting, and the subject matter important for the world, then I know it’s worth pursuing.

Streaming has made documentary film more accessible than ever before. But with more content available it can be harder to attract audiences’ attention. What advice would you give documentarians on making their films stand out?
There is a lot of competition out there, but that doesn’t mean all the folks making those films know how to tell a good story. My advice is to study the structure and techniques of great storytelling so that your film stands out from the rest. Finding unforgettable characters is also a major part of the equation. Remember: your viewer will most often recall how they feel at the end of your film rather than all the important facts and figures you pack in. Your job is to tell a compelling story that moves people’s hearts. That will help your film stand out from the crowd.

What advice would you give to the filmmakers who have never participated in an MPI workshop?
The MPI workshop exists to inspire and shape your vision as a filmmaker; its purpose is purely to invest in your future because we believe in the stories you want to tell. Throughout our time together, we’ll foster deep-dive conversations about the mechanics of storytelling and learn from some of the top professionals in the industry. So my advice is to soak it all in, take lots of notes, and make as many connections as you can to help you establish a path toward getting your film produced!

Any final words of advice for the fellows?
Our hope is to challenge you to take your film idea to a new level of excellence and commercial viability. I encourage you to come prepared to ask questions and be open to applying new concepts to the development of and vision for your film.

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