Local Spotlight: Stefanie Malone, Emerging Filmmakers, and Festival Essentials

In 2007, NFFTY (National Film Festival for Talented Youth) was founded by three Seattle-based young filmmakers: Jesse Harris, Jocelyn R.C., and Kyle Seago. Over the past few years, NFFTY had shown films of over 2,000 young filmmakers (24 and under), and has grown into the world’s largest and most influential film festival for emerging directors. NFFTY returned for its tenth consecutive year April 28 – May 1 in Seattle, with 227 films from 33 states and 25 countries. The youngest filmmaker was 5, and the youngest documentary filmmaker was a 9-year-old who told us the story of Seattle Gum Wall. Through various documentary screenings like The Human Race and Rwanda and Juliet, we were able to hear the voices of youth regarding a lot of social issues we had been keenly discussing.

As the executive director and documentary programmer of NFFTY, and an award-winning documentary filmmaker herself, Stefanie Malone shared with us her thoughts on emerging filmmakers, nonfiction storytelling, as well as some insider tips on festival preparation.

Stefanie NFFTY

Stefanie Malone (left) with the NFFTY 2016 team. (NFFTY)

Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and what work you have accomplished so far in your career?
Stefanie Malone: I’m the executive director of NFFTY, and my favorite part is when I program the documentaries for NFFTY. I am really interested in nonfiction storytelling, and I try to carve out time to make documentaries myself. A recent film I worked on with my husband, Last Refuge of the Troublemaker, just premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. I also have a long history in PBS, working on outreach, engagement and education side, as well as producing for KCTS etc.

Why is it important to have a festival designed specifically for young filmmakers?
SM: The biggest thing is our educational component. We have panels, discussions along with the festival, and those are open to everybody. We want to help young people build their skill sets, learn more about filmmaking in general. At NFFTY young filmmakers are represented and being treated as professional filmmakers, instead of sitting at a “kids’ table.” Also, the connections they make during the festival is really important. We have networking events and three parties to help them connect with their future collaborators. One of the music videos this year, Ivan B – “Walk With Me”, is a collaboration between filmmakers from Norway and Seattle. They met 2 years ago at NFFTY and wanted to work on a film together. With Cloud, they were able to cooperate cross continent and develop this great piece.

Are there any differences you’ve noticed between younger and older filmmakers?
SM: The content of films at NFFTY is much edgier than you will find at a traditional festival. They talk about darker issues, like suicide, which I think is pretty normal for teenage and college years. To me the most beautiful thing about these emerging filmmakers is that they are extremely open and interested in connecting, and they are genuinely enthusiastic about collaboration. Sometimes in the filmmaking world people feel protective of their work, but these filmmakers really trust and support each other.

What are young filmmakers’ attitudes towards documentary? Are they usually more interested in narrative film and music video?
SM: We actually received lots of documentary submissions, and I had seen so many young people passionate about documentary filmmaking. Rwanda & Juliet, made by a 23-year-old filmmaker, was a feature screening this year. The Human Race was another compelling screening to me, which included 4 films exploring the culture, race and community. In the Path of My Father, a documentary produced by 4 filmmakers aged from 11 to 16, told a deeply-personal story of two brothers growing up without their father. All these documentaries were really open and authentic, and had given people a chance to hear some voice they were not aware of. One of my favorite documentaries from last year is The Provider. Eleven months after its premiere at NFFTY, it went on to SXSW. That’s the level our young documentary filmmakers are operating at.

A still from the documentary “Hands Up,” directed by Zinhle Essamuah that documents the activists of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. (NFFTY)

A still frame from the documentary “Hands Up,” directed by Zinhle Essamuah. (NFFTY)

How do you envision the future of NFFTY?
SM: With the 10th anniversary of NFFTY, it’s good timing for us to make changes and shape up. Festivals that support the youth are always indispensable components – in the meantime we are looking for more education opportunities and ways to improve our programming.

As a documentary filmmaker yourself, what are you thoughts about filming in Washington? The landscape of filmmaking, the community, etc.?
SM: There is a great community in the Pacific Northwest. Organizations like SeaDocNWFFWomen in Film engage lots of creative filmmakers that are generous and encouraging. I feel lucky to be in this helpful community. For filming in Washington, I especially like that I don’t have to ask permission for things – there is not a system to work through. I work on small, self-funded projects, with people I trust. I am grateful about this situation.

As the documentary programmer of NFFTY, what suggestions do you have to make a documentary stand out at a festival?
SM: Usually people make their documentaries way too long. Sometimes filmmakers determine on a feature-length, a one-hour piece, instead of boiling down to the essential of the story. During the past 3 years as a documentary programmer, I watched more than 250 documentaries per year, and I saw all the unnecessary storylines or aspects. That hurts the film tremendously. I will suggest every filmmaker to reflect and cut back on your films, to “kill your darling.”

To be more straightforward, what is the easiest way to get into a festival?
SM: You have to be cognisant of the festival you are entering, and to make sure it’s a right fit. Every festival has a personality. The short my husband and I made is a story of a PNW wood carver. We wanted to get it into some respectful festivals, but we also understood it was not a life-changing film for big festivals like Sundance and Full Frame. Big Sky is a great documentary festival that has this vibe of Pacific Northwest outdoors, and we had proven our film fits in. For all documentary filmmakers, it is necessary to look into the festivals you are submitting to, and try to find a perfect match. It’s just like dating.

A packed house at NFFTY's Speed Networking Event. (NFFTY)

A packed house at NFFTY’s Speed Networking Event. (NFFTY)

What is the next step for filmmakers after getting into a festival?
SM: Make sure to engage with everybody you met, and feel comfortable about sending out friend requests on Facebook. My first year after NFFTY, I didn’t connect with a lot of filmmakers. I was bummed out by the fact that 90% of the requests I received were from male filmmakers. It was a bit sad that young women were not very confident about themselves, and they were not going out and connecting with me. Later I witnessed their male colleagues’ career development – the Kickstarter campaigns they conducted, the new films they pushed out on social media etc., but I didn’t know what a lot of the young women were doing after NFFTY. If you are really interested in filmmaking, you have to stay connected with people in different ways. Don’t hesitate to volunteer on other filmmakers’ projects, and be generous to offer your help. That’s how things come together in the future.

What other suggestions do you have for documentary filmmakers, especially young filmmakers?
SM: Go to festivals, connect with each other, and support each other. You’ll need their support someday. Be open to volunteer, and eventually form your own tribe.

See NFFTY 2016 recap video below and for more information about NFFTY click here.