Theo Rigby with Ingrid LaTorre from “Sanctuary Rising"

The Challenges of Documentary Filmmaking: Theo Rigby Tells Immigrant Stories

For the past four years, San Francisco-based filmmaker Theo Rigby has been developing a documentary called “Sanctuary Rising.”  The film’s Kickstarter page describes it as an intimate portrait of two undocumented mothers who go to…

For the past four years, San Francisco-based filmmaker Theo Rigby has been developing a documentary called “Sanctuary Rising.”  The film’s Kickstarter page describes it as an intimate portrait of two undocumented mothers who go to dramatic lengths to fend off deportation and separation from their families in the United States. It follows the stories of the two women who chose to enter sanctuary at local churches, rather than report to ICE to be deported. Sara Matson, development director of Canal Alliance, appreciates Rigby’s compassion for the topics, understanding of the complexities, and the uniqueness of each individual’s story within the immigrant and undocumented communities. Canal Alliance in San Rafael, nonprofit champion of immigrants who are challenged by a lack of resources and an unfamiliar environment, partnered with The California Film Institute to present one of Rigby’s films, “Waking Dream,” last fall. She got to know him through this project and presentation. 

“It’s different than hearing a news reporter read data, but it’s actually hearing how issues of immigration and policy change are impacting individuals in profound ways. It’s a very powerful experience for other immigrants affected by these issues to see people like themselves and feel that their stories are being shared to a wider audience in this way.”

– Sara Matson, Canal Alliance

Theo Rigby knows firsthand about the challenges inherent in his profession of documentary filmmaking. Rigby is the founder of iNation Media, a production company with a focus on immigration issues and the immigrant experience in the U.S. Through iNation Media, Rigby gives a platform to immigrant individuals and communities to tell their stories in nuanced narratives rarely seen. Rigby says, much like other indie filmmakers, he’s come up against challenges on many levels, most notably financial obstacles. He received a small grant early on from the now-defunct Hartley Film Foundation and then won the California Film Institute’s DocPitch award in 2016. Since then, he’s been self-funding the film, doing it on a shoestring budget, filming everything himself, with some help from interns.

Film festivals and pitch sessions help to bridge some of the financial gaps by also giving exposure to worthwhile projects like “Sanctuary Rising.” Of the nearly three thousand film festivals worldwide, many have come to recognize the relevance of the documentary genre. Some festivals even dedicate documentary segments to the overall program. One such festival and organization is in the heart of the Bay Area.

“Sanctuary Rising” trailer

Documentary Films at California Film Institute: DocPitch

Documentaries form an integral aspect of the annual Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) and the California Film Institute (CFI). CFI also holds a separate annual documentary film festival, DocLands. Separate from DocLands festival, but presented during the festival, is DocPitch, which gives a platform to filmmakers looking to further or complete their projects. Organizers select filmmakers with feature-length documentary projects “in development,” which means the project has a draft script, budget, key cast, creatives, scout locations but hasn’t been “greenlighted” to move ahead into production.

For DocPitch, participants give a verbal pitch, present a trailer, and participate in a Q&A with the audience of funders, festival representatives, distributors, broadcasters, and the general public. All of whom get to select their favorite projects/pitches. Of the 500 entries DocPitch draws, the jury has to narrow the selection down to just five.

“Quite simply, the jury is looking for a good story that is well told. One that is unique in its content or vision,” comments DocLands Director of Programming Joni Cooper.

Cooper says the jury considers: Does it invoke emotion or resonate at a deeper level? Is the filmmaker uniquely suited to tell the story or have special access? If it’s a timely story, does the filmmaker have the experience to see it to conclusion? Does the story leave the viewer wanting to know more?

“Every day we are bombarded with ‘breaking news’ stories and a never-ending wall of soundbites,” comments Mark Fishkin, CFI’s founder and executive director. “However important these stories may be to our lives; they often feel like they are given the same weight and shoehorned into a never-ending news cycle.”

CFI’s documentary programming is part of ongoing screenings at the Rafael Theater, through the MVFF each fall, and through CFI Education program, as well as the annual DocLands event.

“Stories can both enlighten and entertain us,… The ways documentaries provide a way of seeing and hearing the world, can give us a deeper perspective on critical issues and a greater appreciation for the ‘wonderland’ that still surrounds us. Real stories touch us at our core.”

Mark Fishkin, California Film Institute

Filmmakers and festival organizers alike realize the importance of festival exposure, especially for the independent directors and documentarians.

“Festivals can provide huge buzz for films,” continues Cooper.  “They get audiences talking, sometimes yelling – whether out of joy, frustration, or outrage – about the films that touched or resonated with them about issues that bind us together through shared human experience. Word travels fast through social media, especially authentic and passionate words.”

More Needed to Tell Critical Stories

The Sundance Institute’s Budget Worksheet for Documentary Filmmaker Program (2012) illustrates the long list of expenses associated with the making of a documentary film—from pre-production and production through post-production and marketing/distribution. According to the International Documentary Association, budgets for independent projects can vary greatly. Some projects only raise $10-20,000 to cover basic hard costs, and others are only ever partially funded, and involve huge contributions of volunteer labor and services. Professional labor such as camera operators, lighting and sound crews and post-production costs, such as video editing and sound mixing greatly increases budget. The filmmaker often wears many hats: producer, director, writer, cinematographer, and editor. Other expenses include the cost of equipment and post-production including editing. For example: cameras alone range $1,300 to $6,000, and according to, a professional editor will often cost $1,000 to $2,500 per day.

One production cost is the time spent and travel expenses needed to gather interviews. For example, although Theo Rigby had hoped to connect with immigrants that were seeking asylum in the Bay Area for “Sanctuary Rising,” the timing didn’t quite work out. Instead, he eventually learned of someone in Denver who was provided sanctuary from immigration deportation through a faith community requiring travel to make the film.

Organizers, such as those at the MVFF and DocLands provide a platform sympathetic to the financial challenges of these independent filmmakers, and supportive of the vital role of documentary stories. Rigby won a $5,000 prize the first year of DocPitch. Over the years, the MVFF increased the cash prize and this year’s award is $25,000. While this award helped Rigby gain a lot of ground with the production of “Sanctuary Rising,” the project still needs more financial support to realize the potential impact of the film.


Paula Farmer is an author event host and moderator for Book Passage, and chairwoman of the new Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the CALIBA (California Independent Booksellers Association). She curates special panel events for Book Passage that focus on timely social and political issues. Her background is in print and broadcast journalism.

This year’s DocLands Film Festival and Doc Picks will not take place as scheduled April 30-May 3. Due to the extraordinary circumstances we’re currently experiencing, DocLands will move online via the Variety Streaming Room. For updates and more information go to

To learn more about Theo Rigby’s documentary project, follow its progress or to support the film go to

For details on the mission and accomplishments of Canal Alliance, go to their website at