The UnionDocs Summer Documentary Labs are designed to be tightly structured environments where a select group of emerging filmmakers from the US and abroad can be inspired and challenged to think through every aspect of a work-in-progress. Based in one of NYC’s most exciting neighborhoods, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the labs explore contemporary approaches to documentary film, offer a stronger understanding of the best practices and business of production, and help filmmakers develop a robust foundation for an independent project.
Through daily screenings, seminar discussions, professional development sessions and weekly site visits, our labs expose participants to a diverse set of creative documentary practices from around the world. Drawing inspiration from art, anthropology, and activism, they should not be mistaken for an industrial, journalistic, or traditional documentary training. In The New York Times film scholar Scott MacDonald remarked, “UnionDocs has a healthy sense that the older definitions of what constitutes ‘experimental’ cinema and what constitutes ‘documentary’ are up for grabs.” Much emphasis is placed on workshopping lab participants’ writing about their projects as a way to both clarify the creative direction and attract potential team members, funders and producers. Participants receive honest and helpful feedback on their project proposals from prominent documentary artists and industry experts.
The Summer Documentary Labs include the three-week Research & Development Lab (R&D) and the five-week Early Production Lab (EP). Participants of the R&D Lab enter with an idea or concept for a documentary; shot footage is not a requisite. This lab aids participants in sharpening and articulating their ideas, outlining pathways for research, and strategizing their access and the aesthetic approach before production begins.
Participants of the EP Lab are a bit further along in the process, have access to their story, character or environment, and have begun gathering footage. They should not have completed more than half of the anticipated production, allowing for fresh approaches and new ideas to enter the work. This lab also results in a written proposal, but also endeavors to strengthen participants media samples and establish project planning all the way through distribution.
For each lab, twelve to fourteen applicants are selected on the basis of their past experience and the strength of a current documentary proposal or concept. While many filmmakers who have already completed feature projects have found the focused environment of the lab very useful to their next project, a previous feature in documentary is not required so long as a commitment to an independent and creative vision is demonstrated. We aim to bring together exciting international participants, and the peer interaction is a big asset to the program. Up to six participants have the option to stay in the UnionDocs residency, an affordable and convenient housing option for international or out of town guests.
The Brooklyn Rail summed it up with the title of their feature article: “UnionDocs Brings Auteurs Together”. For some, participation in the program may lead to the development and completion of a documentary. For others, it may lead to independent projects, collaborations or strengthened careers within the industry. For all, it is an unparalleled immersion in the expansive field of documentary art.
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Rodney Evans (Vision Portraits), Summer Documentary Lab Fellow, Creative Capital Grantee, Guggenheim Fellow, Sundance award-winner.
“Overall the program was amazing and life changing in a lot of ways. I felt like I was working in a vacuum for years, so it was fantastic to feel like I was part of a community… words can’t express the gratitude and appreciation. I plan to come for more weekend sessions when I can.”
Flora Charner, Summer Documentary Lab Fellow, award-winning multimedia journalist based in New York.
“The program surpassed my expectations. I cannot stress how valuable the contributions of my colleagues and instructors were. It was great growing and learning from each other in a nurturing and encouraging environment.”
Dylan Redford, 2018 Summer Documentary Lab Fellow, Independent Filmmaker / Borscht Corp Miami
“I came away with a one-sheet description of my film that I will use, and continue to refine, as material for all types of grants/pitch forums. I also came away with a community of collaborators and a network of professional relationships that feel positive, organic, and mutually beneficial.”
A stronger understanding of the business and best practices of managing a documentary production.
Invited industry experts lead weekly sessions developing skills and knowledge concerning the business of documentary production, such as proposal writing, fundraising, rights management, fiscal sponsorship, and more. This curriculum was developed to offer the fundamentals that documentarians need to prepare for the planning, production, editing and release of an independent documentary. Each session will feature guest speakers sharing tips and secrets of the trade, with an emphasis on real-life case studies and best practices.
Masterclasses with guest artists and industry professionals who represent some of the most exciting voices in the documentary field.
For a masterclass, a visiting artist often shares the detailed history of a particular project from both a practical and a theoretical perspective, then enters into an extended discussion with the group. Masterclasses with visiting artists provide encouragement, inspiration and exposure to a diverse set of conceptual perspectives and practical methods. UnionDocs has an expansive network of filmmakers from NYC and beyond that are invited for these opportunities.
Regular screenings and seminars on a diverse and exciting collection of documentary works.
Gain a broader understanding of contemporary nonfiction forms. Seminars are held two to three times per week with experienced academics, critics, and programmers who will foster an open discussion in response to a reading and film screening. Films are chosen to showcase the range of documentary today, but also to respond to ideas in the participant’s proposals. Seminars are designed to stimulate creativity, open discussion and debate, and offer a common set of references for the group. Once a week, seminars include a guest artist to discuss their own work with the seminar instructor and the participants.
Fridays are devoted to on-site visits to some of the most influential documentary organizations based in New York. This gives participants a chance to meet directly with programmers, production houses and funders to ask questions and gain understanding about their process. Past field trips have been made to POV, the Tribeca Institute, Impact Partners Film, Chicken and Egg, NY Times Op-Docs, Topic, Dig it Audio, Full Circle Post, Technicolor, Film Society of Lincoln Center, IFP, Women Make Movies, and AbelCine, among others.
Bottom line: Get the tools you need to take your documentary idea further: a refined pitch, an improved media sample, a fully articulated proposal, realistic budgets and a production plan.
The primary goal of both Summer Documentary Labs is to support the development of your project. We provide a framework of instruction, workshops, assignments, and deadlines; all designed to push your work forward. Group critiques with peers and one-on-one sessions with the lead instructor and mentors challenge you to clarify your interests and perspective. Additionally, a meeting will be set up with a project consultant from the field who is specifically matched to your project and goals. You will leave the program with a deeper understanding of your intentions, a concrete production plan, and well-rehearsed options for articulating the project, pursuing funding, and cultivating an audience.
The Summer Documentary Lab is split between residents and non-residents. Six resident participants live in the two-floor residency at 322 Union Avenue, while non-resident participants set up their housing independently or already live in NYC.
International applicants have priority for the residency option, as we have found that it can be difficult to arrange short-term housing when arriving in NYC from abroad. However, any applicant to the program may choose to be considered for a spot in the residency because they are attracted to the kind of dynamic interaction and inspiration that can come from an intentional living arrangement. Having a place to come back to after the intense days in the lab, where roommates share a vision and are involved in an ongoing experience, is something pretty unique.
$300 / week includes common charges.
A deposit of $300 required at time of contract to be refunded upon move-out.
Mila Turajlic, Summer Documentary Lab Fellow, IDFA award-winning director of The Other Side of Everything (2017).
“I loved the concept of the program, and the way the progression through our own projects is mixed with talks from people in the industry, screenings and discussions of different artistic voices in creative doc, and the field trips that really helped map out the documentary landscape in New York. For me the concept is really spot on, and was exactly what I needed at this phase of my project. “
Tarini Manchanda, Summer Documentary Lab Fellow, documentary filmmaker and founding member of Ground Water Up.
“The Summer Documentary Lab is going to be my source of confidence going forward.”
Jan 10, 2020
Early Bird Deadline
Feb 21st, 2020
$5 Early Bird Application Fee
March 31st, 2020
$20 Application Fee
Early Production Lab – $3200 (5 weeks)
Research & Development Lab – $2200 (3 weeks)
- $500 deposit due upon accepting the invitation.
- Full balance is due June 1, 2020
Fees have been set up to be as a low as possible, while also providing for a meaningful experience in a well-organized environment. UnionDocs is a small independent non-profit organization that has grown from grassroots. We do not have an endowment, nor institutional affiliation, so we rely on these fees to help with the program’s operating costs. We strive to deliver a lot more for participants than they would expect to get paying for a single course at university.
Current / Past Instructors
A social entrepreneur and new media artist, whose individual & collaborative projects have been exhibited in galleries and museums internationally.
Malika Zouhali-Worrall is an Emmy award-winning director, producer and editor.
Su Kim is a documentary producer who has received numerous grants including from ITVS, Sundance Documentary Fund, NYSCA, California Humanities Council and Tribeca Film Institute.
Danielle Varga is a nonfiction producer based in Brooklyn and will be part of the Summer Lab feedback team, alongside myself.
Mentor & Seminar Instructor
Carlos A. Gutiérrez
Ruth is a Spanish filmmaker, curator and researcher based in New York. She is currently a Senior Programmer at DOC NYC, DocumentaMadrid and The Architecture and Design Film Festival.
Eric Hynes is a journalist, critic, and curator of film at Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
Past Seminar Guests
Kelly Anderson (My Brooklyn)
Francisco Bello (War Don Don)
Alan Berliner (First Cousin Once Removed)
Angad Bhalla (Herman’s House)
Caitlin Boyle (Film Sprout)
Marcelo Bukin (Dreaming Nicaragua)
Gary Chou (Orbital)
Sarah Christman (As Above So Below)
Ramona Diaz (Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey)
Jacqueline Goss (The Observers)
Zachary Heinzerling (Cutie and the Boxer)
Tracie Holder (Women Make Movies)
Ellen Kuras (The Betrayal – Nerakhoon)
Adella Ladjevardi (Cinereach)
Penny Lane (Our Nixon, Nuts!)
Peter Levin (Director/founder Splash Studios)
Marilyn Ness (E-team)
Omar Mullick (These Birds Walk)
Terence Nance (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty)
Jenny Raskin (Impact Partners)
Emily Rothschild (Long Shot Factory)
Jose Rodriguez (Tribeca Film Institute)
Lana Wilson (The Departure)
Martha Shane (After Tiller)
Merrill Sterritt (Film Presence)
Michèle Stephenson (American Promise)
J.t. Takagi (Sound Recordist & Filmmaker)
David Teague (Editor E-team, Cutie and the Boxer)
Basil Tsiokos (Programmer Sundance & Doc Nyc)
Stefanos Tsivopoulos (History Zero)
Pacho Velez (Manakamana)
Stephanie Wang-breal (Blowin’ Up)
James N Kienitz Wilkins (Public Hearing)
Debra Zimmerman (Women Make Movies)
Conrad Ventur, Summer Documentary Lab Fellow, NYC multi-media artist, Franklin Furnace Fund grantee, represented in London by Rokeby Gallery.
“The program did an incredible job of creating a sense of urgency for the filmmakers. That feeling acted as a motivator for me to produce the best possible work while there in Brooklyn. I was more than happy with the overall structure. I felt that I was pushed, but I also felt that I had enough time to get the work done.”
Julia Vassey, Summer Documentary Lab Fellow, journalist, producer and filmmaker.
“In a relatively short period of time it gives an overall review of the documentary art; from theoretical knowledge, getting familiar with the work of other filmmakers, to practical analysis of your own project with the group of classmates, all very creative filmmakers.”
Latest EPL Projects
One of Ours
Dir. Yasmine Mathurin
One of Ours is a poetic observational look at reconciliation and belonging through the eyes of Josiah Wilson, a young Haitian-born Indigenous adoptee in Calgary, Canada. After being racially profiled at an Indigenous basketball tournament, Josiah distanced himself from his indigenous identity. While his dynamic family attempts to heal him from the past through tradition, a skeptical Josiah is forced to examine his sense of belonging through the politics of his identities.
Dir. John Sutter
Baseline is a series of feature-length documentaries filmed in the same locations every five years until 2050, offering an unprecedented look at the climate crisis. Baseline 2021, the first film in the series, uses archival material, interviews and verité scenes to reframe the climate emergency in the context of “generational amnesia.” The film takes a vignette approach, exploring places where the lessons of the climate crisis already are being forgotten and following characters who create memory as a form of resistance.
Looking in Dots and Dashes
Dir. Tushar Madhav
After committing suicide at the peak of his artistic career in Japan in 2001, internationally renowned Indian painter Jangarh Singh Shyam has become a god-like figure for the people of his home village and an enigma in the world of indigenous art. This film discovers the artist in his afterlife, oscillating between myth and reality, by exploring his creative genius and unearthing the mysteries of his depression and death, which gave birth to a legacy that survives amidst paradoxes in the global market for indigenous art.
The Cleaning Writer
Dir. Carolina Gonzalez Valencia
Beatriz Valencia, a domestic worker in the U.S., and Carolina, her daughter-filmmaker, collaborate to create the fictional character, Beatriz Valencia–author of the forthcoming book “How to Immigrate to the United States.” Using performance and hybridity, this documentary tells a story about immigration, labor, dreams and the power of fiction to generate emancipation.
100 Ways to Cross the Border
Dir. Amber Bemak
100 Ways to Cross the Border is a feature length performative documentary film which depicts the prolific Mexican/Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s 40-year career of artistic intervention on the US/Mexico border. Claiming all borders as queer and liminal spaces, or as Gómez-Peña calls it, “queering the border,” the film opens up the border broadly as a space of utopian possibility, a site of reinvention, and a move away from the current mainstream paradigm rooted in fear and xenophobia.
There Was, and There Was Not
Dir. Emily Mkrtichian
In a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a painter invites four women into her studio – a politician, an Olympic-hopeful athlete, a domestic violence activist, and a woman who disarms landmines for a living. Through intimate conversations, each woman shares their personal hardships, as well as their imaginations, desires and dreams for the future, starting the artist on a journey to create a series of transformative portraits.
Early Production Lab: July 6 – August 7, 2020
Morning: Screening followed by Seminar or Masterclass
Afternoon: Professional Development Work Session
Our Early Production Lab in July is for projects about to go into production. Filmmakers have already likely shot some of their material and have access to their subjects and are looking for ways to strengthen their media samples, and pitches and work through the ideas as they approach the production stage and plan for the entire process all the way through to distribution.
It is a five-week program with full day commitments Monday-Thursday. Outings in the city on Fridays are half-days. In addition to the meeting schedule above, expect five-ten independent hours each week of work towards project development assignments and five hours weekly of assigned watching and reading.
*** This schedule will shift on first and last week due to national holidays.
Research & Development Lab: August 10 – August 28, 2020
Morning: Screening followed by Seminar or Masterclass
Afternoon: Professional Development Work Session
Our Research & Development Lab is a space for projects to grow while in their earliest stages. When a project is still largely a concept or idea, we can help filmmakers solidify the ideas with efforts, assignments, and conversations around best practices for grounding the project in its early stages of writing. This moment of focus can help set up projects for success from these nascent beginnings all the way through from funding to production to distribution.
This is a three week program with full day commitments Monday-Thursday. Outings in the city on Fridays are half-days. In addition to the meeting schedule above, expect five-ten independent hours each week of work towards project development assignments and five hours weekly of assigned watching and reading.
*** This schedule will shift on first and last week due to national holidays.
Strong applicants are contacted for an interview taking place in person at UnionDocs or via Skype between early March 2020 (for early applicants) and early April 2020 (for regular applicants).
Notification May 2020 for invited participants and those on the waitlist
Applicants must have a documentary project in early phases of development. Applicants should have demonstrated access to their subjects and/or the ability to pursue the proposed project given the right resources. It is best if applicant already has some footage to work with. Applicant should not be completed with production.
Applicants should have a Bachelors Degree or equivalent in experience.
All requests for refunds must be submitted in writing to the Executive Director of UnionDocs. The refund policy for participants enrolled in the Summer Lab is as follows:
– 50% refund of deposit is possible with withdrawal before May 27, 2020
– 50% refund of total program fees is possible with withdrawal before June 17, 2020
– No refunds are possible after June 24, 2020