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“You Can Only Sit on a Zoom Call for So Long”: Tamara Mariam Dawit (Finding Sally) on Online Markets and the Hot Docs 2020 Digital Experience

Finding Sally

Splitting her time between Toronto and Addis Ababa, Canadian-Ethiopian filmmaker Tamara Mariam Dawit is no stranger to international workshops and events. (Or to Hot Docs. When the pandemic hit the longtime alum had been set to premiere her latest Finding Sally, a personal investigation into the life of a long-lost communist rebel aunt four decades after her disappearance.) “I think the upside of online meetings is that the cost is less. You don’t have to pay for flights and hotels, which is what often makes attending a market like Cannes or the EFM too expensive for many people,” Dawit offered. “And right now for me, attending events this spring — like Sheffield, Cannes and Hot Docs — online is better than having them canceled. But I find that online markets are really only helpful for following up with people you already know in the real world. I think it is a bit more challenging to make a meaningful connection with a new producer or decision-maker who you don’t have any past interactions with.”

“Online markets just afford less time and opportunities for building relationships with people,” the director added. “You can only sit on a Zoom call for so long. And that doesn’t replace going for a meal with a potential collaborator, being introduced to someone at a cocktail, or a quick informal catch-up in line to see a film. I think the other big downside of events going online is access, and who is able to participate. Needing a high-speed connection means that we are further limiting these events to people in urban centers, and to western countries where filmmakers can access and afford these high-speed connections.”

As for suggesting best practices going forward, “I think what we can take away from these unforeseen changes is that perhaps some aspects of events could move online or that not all markets need to be in-person ones (i.e., perhaps a more regional market),” she theorized. “But the core markets where most of the business happens still need to be in-person so that we can meet and discuss and share our projects.” “As for the actual changes, we need to continue to be sensitive to the access needs of the participants as events pivot online,” Dawit emphasized. ”For example, I had a very hard time streaming some of the video content offered virtually from Hot Docs due to the connectivity in Ethiopia. Being able to choose a lower resolution on those videos could have helped (though I’m not sure of the technological requirements needed to make that happen).”

“I took part in an online workshop recently for filmmakers in Eastern Africa where the organizers — Doc Society and Docubox — were very aware of the connection costs for filmmakers to be online in a Zoom conference for many hours a day,” she then noted. “They offered everyone a reimbursement towards a portion of their internet costs. So I think that with any digital pivot these are the things to consider if we want to have everyone at the table.”

That said, the filmmaker stressed that “It was great that the festival turned around the digital event so quickly. Because of the timezone difference with me in Ethiopia, I didn’t attend very many of the live streamed events, and mostly watched content and pitches online. I would say the part of the festival experience I really missed out on was doing the live Q&As. I think that is the next important piece to figure out for online festivals — how to include some of the interactivity and spontaneous discussion that films often bring about with live audiences.”

Ultimately, though, had the pandemic changed Dawit’s POV about any future productions? “We have done a full review of the projects in our development slate at our company,” she concurred. “We have had to pause some projects that were about to shoot, and have also refocused energy on projects that are more doable in the current working conditions.” No doubt a shift filmmakers on every continent will be wrestling with in the current and post-COVID age.

Finding Sally is available now to stream for Hot Docs Industry delegates and for Hot Docs Ontario audiences from May 28 – June 6.

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