From Film Fellows to TFI Network

We're now accepting submissions for our Tribeca Film Fellows program for New York City filmmakers between the ages of 17 - 21. This year's program will focus on mentorship, with each Fellow being paired with a mentor in their area of interest! 

As we gear up for another season of Film Fellows, we asked our former Tribeca Film Fellow and current Tribeca All Access grantee, James Duarte, to share his film journey with us. Take it away, James... 

My active and ongoing relationship with the Tribeca Film Institute spans a little over a decade accompanied by their unwavering championing of my filmmaking career. In 2007, I became a Tribeca Film Fellow and went through a seminal experience of exclusive access to mentors, filmmakers, screenings, workshops, and panels that for the first time opened my eyes to the educational and professional opportunities available to me, a young man of color from the Bronx. I was a high school sophomore when I received a filmmaker bag that contained a festival credential, customized business cards, free movie vouchers, and a young filmmaker guide with an abundance of resources that even after all these years remains intact and full of valuable information. I remember thinking at 16 that although many of the filmmakers that I admired did not look like me, that there existed people within the industry who believed in my potential enough to give me their vote of confidence and support. Like many young artists from poor and minority backgrounds, up to that point, I struggled to quantify my creative yearnings and expressions because of the common misconception that art is not a sustainable career path.  

In the days leading up to the festival, TFI had all the film fellows collaborate on an introductory video montage called "Cityscapes", a depiction of all five boroughs through our respective point of views, for "Our City, My Story", TFI’s annual celebration of the excellence and diversity of NYC youth media. So unique was this fellowship experience that I could find myself recording a segment in the South Bronx with a journalist from the New York Times one day and the next in an NPR studio getting interviewed on the Brian Lehrer Show about my experience and inspirations and the next, asking Angelina Jolie a question about the challenges she faced as a woman filmmaker before a screening of her documentary "A Place in Time". This exposure to the industry instilled in me the confidence required to go out and make name for myself and as a result, my innocent curiosity in filmmaking was transformed into a vocation. The network that I had established by the end of the fellowship set a foundation that carried me through an array of formative opportunities that followed like studying experimental film at the San Francisco Arts Institute, becoming a National YoungArts finalist in Cinematic Arts, and having my work screen at venues like the MoMA and HBO Latino Film Festival.

There is a nuanced artist in me that yearns to create films that convey aesthetic beauty, but there is also an activist in me aware of the human suffering and tumult who feels a strong desire to create art with the potential to change the political landscape. I enrolled in the City College of New York, where as an undergraduate I diligently built my craft while learning about the university’s rich history of activism. Studying on a campus primed for socially conscious thinkers and leaders allowed me to have quintessential experiences that continue to shape my view of the world. In the spring before graduating I was offered an internship opportunity back at the Tribeca Film Institute and I did not think twice because I love being part of a team that values inclusion and is dedicated to supporting underrepresented talent and their stories. Throughout the semester I worked closely with the Education team assisting with the creation and coordination of programs for films like Sarah Burn’s Documentary “Central Park Five”, for which I designed a pre-screening workshop curriculum on perception and reality. The idea was to have student fellows primed prior to the screening by engaging them with media content concerned with issues of violence, poverty, racial justice and the mainstream media. The internship allowed me to gain a newfound appreciation for the amount of commitment and effort it takes to successfully operate a non-profit organization by experiencing it first hand alongside an incredible team of educators and filmmakers. As my way of giving back and keeping in touch with the Tribeca community, I now volunteer with both the festival and the institute every year.

For the last 5 years I have committed myself to building community within the film industry on both a local and international level serving as the Creative Director for the Dominican Film Festival and Associate Producer for the Ecuadorian Film Festival. Film festivals, no matter how big or small, are vital for emerging filmmakers to experience as much as film going audiences because they serve to bridge the gap between the two. It has been an exciting year for me, having produced a series of short films and wrapping a production internship on the new late-night HBO show “Random Acts of Flyness” produced by the Ministry of Creative Reasoning in conjunction with A24. I’m close to completing an MFA program at the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, where I'll producing two thesis films to be shot in Monterey, CA and El Salvador respectively. 

It may have been over a decade ago but I vividly remember sitting outside a conference room as a high school sophomore waiting for my turn to pitch to Jane Rosenthal and program directors as part of my Film Fellows application process. Little did I know that I would find myself pitching at Tribeca once again, this time in front of all the top independent companies and studios. Earlier this year the production team with whom I'm working on developing our first feature with received the news that our project was accepted into the Tribeca All Access Program, a feat that is incredibly significant and humbling given my trajectory with the organization. I would be at the center of the festival action once again and with a project and a team that I love. Our project, "No Half Steppin’" is the creative effort of Latinx filmmakers from underserved communities in the Bronx. Our film will serve to celebrate the largely Black and Latinx South Bronx community and its contributions to our culture, as well as propel awareness and discourse about gentrification and the criminalization of black and brown youth. Ultimately, we hope the film will serve as a point of pride for the communities involved and as a sincere rendering of their experiences. The team recently received the fabulous news that the project was selected to take part in the 40th annual IFP Project Forum slate in September.

As a Bronx-based creative producer, my work is motivated by the overt social and political contradictions present in society, which I seek to reflect and expose with cinematic nuance. Filmmaking has enabled me to produce work that not only addresses the pressing issues of contemporary society but also to share and amplify underrepresented stories of resilience on a mass scale. As a young gay man of color, I highly value TFI’s commitment to expanding opportunities for underserved communities and for being one of the world’s premier brands at the forefront of diversification within the industry, both in front and behind the camera. My deep appreciation for what Tribeca represents stems from its generosity in providing me with nurturing experiences that have positively influenced my career. In many ways, it feels like I've come full circle, but I certainly know that this is merely the beginning of a life-long bond that will bring forward more voices like my own and more stories that can truly change the world.