For its tenth year, the Docs to Watch roundtable was held at the 2023 SCAD Savannah Film Festival and it consisted of some of the biggest names in documentary filmmaking over the past few years.

The panelists included Maite Alberdi (The Eternal Memory), Mstyslav Chernov (20 Days in Mariupol), Madeleine Gavin (Beyond Utopia), Davis Guggenheim (Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie), Matthew Heineman (American Symphony), Laura McGann (The Deepest Breath), Jesse Moss (The Mission) Raoul Peck (Silver Dollar Road) and D. Smith (Kokomo City).

Of the 45 films that ended up receiving best documentary feature Oscar nominations, 18 of them were a part of the Docs to Watch panel, and seven of those ultimately won the best documentary feature Oscar, as The Hollywood Reporter notes.

At the top of the panel, Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe also received the fest’s inaugural Rising Documentarian Award, with Free accepting the honor on their behalf and noting the perfect climate for documentaries. This year’s panel was held at the Lucas Theatre during the festival.

Speaking about the moment she’s in right now, Smith spoke at length about her journey from a Grammy Award-winning talent who was ostracized by the music industry after coming out as trans to being acclaimed for one of awards season’s biggest documentary contenders which she put together on iMovie.

Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD

“The only words that come to mind are alignment and purpose and my absolute true destiny,” she explained to the audience, which rapturously received her. “[For] 15, 20 years, I spent [time] pursuing a music career. I don’t even what I pursuing. I’ve had success, but what in that was I really looking for? Like I spent so much of my life chasing money, convincing and selling and persuading so much talent, and I wasn’t fulfilled. There was never a spot that just goes, ‘Yes, bitch!’ [laughs]. There was never that moment. And, sleeping on coaches for three years due to being ostracized by the music industry…I’m a seriously private person and prideful, so for me to have to ask people if I could stay in their home, not that there was anything that I did wrong or illegal…just me being transgender was enough for them to crucify me. So I was sleeping on the floors, and I was really just at rock bottom.”

She said she was able to relate to the women who were the subjects of Kokomo City when analyzing how they were treated in comparison to her experience.

“I just think I was so misunderstood and judged,” she explained. “But none of my accomplishments, none of my hard work, none of the relationships that I had…my reputation– none of it mattered. It literally just went out of the door. I just thought– with everything I was awarded in the industry, what was it like for trans women who were taught to do sex work.”

Smith also noted that she wanted to bridge the gap to bring together an understanding between the Black community and Black trans women, and sought to bring to light the women who are like her– very matter-of-fact and open about discussing what would be taboo subjects in the community.

Peck noted how he previously wanted to steer away from stories that would have a scope such as this, but the story of the Reels family also seemed ripe for a project in this vein. The filmmaker, known for I Am Not Your Negro, The Young Karl Marx and many of other projects, also noted how the North Carolina family reminded him of his own family members.

In a recent interview with Shadow and Act, Peck said, “This could happen anywhere. I wanted people to understand this could be your family.”