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Reflections of a First-Time Attendee

By Mariana Sanson

Photograph of a room filled with multiple people seated and clapping in applause. The focus is on Chris Boeckmann, Getting Real '22 Programmer, who is wearing brown pants and a light olive green long-sleeved button-up, sitting in front of a black backdrop.

In 2018, I received the “3 Days in Cannes” pass, which allows passionate lovers of cinema from all nationalities and backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 28 to attend the Festival de Cannes. To get the accreditation, I needed to submit an essay about why I loved cinema, and two weeks before the festival opened, I received an email confirming that I had been selected. 

But soon, my joy turned to anguish; my pass included neither accommodations nor travel. I was a film festival worker in Mexico, and I used that experience to write about my love for cinema; after all, given the working conditions at film festivals, how can you not love cinema? Getting the funding to attend Cannes in such a short period of time was simply impossible for me. Sadly, I declined the pass, which purportedly aimed to support career development but, truthfully, targeted young, passionate lovers of cinema who could afford to attend. 

In contrast, the Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellowship has allowed me to keep learning, write and speak about pressing topics in our industry, feel part of a strong community of peers, and attend the fifth edition of Getting Real, IDA’s biennial conference. Last September, from room to room, Zoom link to Zoom link, I tried to learn everything I could from a program that was designed and created to be a welcoming, accessible and equitable space. 

I congratulate each team member, panelist and volunteer who worked tirelessly to realize an ambitious three-day hybrid event. As we move to a different stage of the pandemic and we return to in-person events, we must continue to make them accessible. As my colleague 2020 Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow Reveca Torres wrote in her coverage of Getting Real ’20, access makes the difference. 

So, after sifting through 30-plus pages of notes, here are my impressions of the conference and the interconnectivity of the sessions. 

During the session “Reality Check: Forming a New Documentary Canon,” while discussing how to pluralize and diversify the crowdsource that defines the canon through list-making, the participants stressed the importance of not only including the voices of the marginalized but also acknowledging where they are coming from, what their life experiences are that allow them to empathize with certain films. Closely related, the panelists indicated that they, as critics, needed to ask themselves, Which filmmakers are we invoking when we write about cinema or create a list to talk about the “Greatest Films”? This leads me to talk about the importance of representation and the harm done by erasure and invisibility, of not seeing our lives reflected in the media or lists that do not include our perspectives—which was discussed in the “Latinx Convening” breakout session and the panel Surviving the Aftermath.”

It was also refreshing to hear the different types of lists whose creators are inviting new generations to join our film communities or form their own. They are a reflection of how social media and digital platforms are shaping collective memory and the historical record. Film writer Kelli Weston discussed how Tumblr sparked her cinephilia, and my 2022 Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow colleague, film writer Emerson Goo, discussed how Letterbox allows learning more about international film festival programs, even when you cannot attend one. The consensus was that lists should be seen as databases, created with the limitations of our life experiences and of what we have access to watch. Even for Getting Real, I created a list of events I wanted to attend, guided by what I was more interested in and curious to explore. So, for full disclosure: I am an immigrant brown woman who grew up in Mexico understanding the world through media; a former festival worker who currently works in a nonprofit that supports women and non-binary nonfiction filmmakers; and most recently, a documentary participant, the latter illuminated by the testimonies shared during the panel “The ‘Subject’ Has Rights.” Just like Kelli Weston said, my love for films (and passion for documentary) is innately tied to my identity.

I also believe that it is not necessary to have lived precisely the same experience that others have lived in order to understand; what we also need is a profound sense of empathy and care for others. This has been the power force of documentary filmmaking. 

Since attending the conference, my sense of community has reverberated in my head. Through a community, I have developed the personal and professional experience that has brought me here, and it is through that experience and a deep sense of collectivity that I write and experience documentaries.

One of my biggest fears about no longer working for a film festival was losing that strong community. As was discussed in the panel “Collateral Damage in Institutional Repair,” I also believed that I had an amazing job and felt so lucky to have it that I didn’t push back on the many unfair conditions in the workplace. I also barely had time to reflect on those conditions because I was working nonstop. This session was a type of validating therapy for me; hearing the stories of others who had gone through similar situations made me realize that we were not alone. 

My hope is that we can continue to address this work vs. workplace dichotomy and to hold accountable those powerful institutions that profess a social justice commitment, work with public resources but behind closed doors, belie what they claim to be standing for, that the talented and passionate people who work there no longer need to prove themselves and that they can thrive in healthier environments. This hope is fueled by the passionate energy exuded by the panelists in the “Organizing” workshop; I am sure that their path with light the path of others. 

Nanfu Wang’s powerful and personal words broke through to me as an immigrant woman working in the US; her experience echoed across different panels of other filmmakers arriving in this country, believing that their rich perspective would matter but facing unwelcoming environments instead. But most importantly, I heard Nanfu’s words as a call-out for those of us who work in funding organizations, and I felt the urge to act. We need to create systems that allow filmmakers to work on projects they are passionate about and still make a living. The current system forces them to spend as much time and energy fighting for the funds to get their films made as they actually spend time making their films. How many independent filmmakers are we leaving behind? How will we fight against the current documentary business model that forces independent filmmakers to sacrifice topics they are passionate about and their creative freedom?

And most importantly, how often will filmmakers have to tell us what they need? I hope that Nanfu Wang’s keynote address will inspire all of us who work in funding to listen to the filmmakers in our community. I had the opportunity to sit next to a filmmaker who expressed deep concern and hopelessness. “If Nanfu Wang is experiencing that, what can I expect?” she said to me. 

Let’s process what we heard, shared and experienced during Getting Real, and let’s put those ideas to work and revolutionize the documentary system around the world.

Mariana Sanson is a 2022 Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow and the Communications Manager at Chicken & Egg Pictures. The Fellowship program is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit