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Filmmaker And Entrepreneur On A Mission To Educate

Filmmaker And Entrepreneur On A Mission To Educate

Elliot Kotek and his Nation of Artists blend innovative educational ideas to deliver award-winning content and campaigns.

During the recent United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, “For Tomorrow — the Documentary” launched to celebrate the grassroots innovators around the world tackling sustainability issues on a local level. A collaboration between the United Nations Development Programme and Hyundai Motor Company, the project records solutions created by the people living closest to the issues they’re addressing.

In its first few weeks, the documentary has racked up 350,000 views on YouTube, and has added millions of views for shorter videos featuring the film’s heroes from Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Azerbaijan and Peru. Enhanced with narration by Daisy Ridley (Rey from the Star Wars franchise) and featuring TIME Magazine’s Kid of the Year Gitanjali Rao, the partnership with the Korean automaker Hyundai delivered K-Pop megastars BTS.

Elliot Kotek, founder of Nation of Artists, a production company focused on feature documentaries, docu-series, and branded content, was a producer on the film. Kotek also worked as a strategist on the initial platform,, that gathered the ideas from which the documentary was curated, “The impact of documentary filmmaking to educate while it entertains gives the medium real meaning and significance,” Kotek explained.

The audience generated by BTS’s involvement has been incredibly vocal. That Jamila Mammadli, an Azerbaijani advocate for people with disabilities, was invited to speak at a K-Pop café in Baku is a testament to the power of influencers to open up a film to younger, engaged groups for discussion.

Another of the film’s subjects — Emmanuel Alie Mansaray from West Africa’s Sierra Leone -– sourced electronic waste from local dump sites, taught himself engineering, and built a solar-powered vehicle. His attendance at Lincoln Center in New York for the film’s premiere was his first-ever flight, and “For Tomorrow” has introduced him to other engineers who are tackling the issue of sustainable transportation.

Another takeaway from the premiere was an offer from an audience member to connect Trinh Thi Hong, who turns organic waste into a range of soaps and detergents in Vietnam, with “Seed,” a program created by alumni of Stanford University, in which they mentor early-stage entrepreneurs in Africa and South Asia to “intensify their impact.”

It was Kotek’s Nation of Artists who, alongside the Montreal-based creative agency Sid Lee, also produced earlier videos highlighting the ‘For Tomorrow’ innovators. They first recruited crews in Wales, Argentina, Nigeria and Nepal to highlight the innovation showcased on the platform. Then, they added teams in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guatemala, Peru, Vietnam, India and the United States.

“It was important to enlist and empower local crews to film the stories happening in their communities,” Kotek says, “and that approach felt totally on point with the message of the documentary itself — that people close to the solutions can be the people empowered to act to solve them.”

On previous projects for Qualcomm, New Balance, the Fair Labor Association and other clients, Kotek typically assembled his team and traveled to capture the stories, rather than working with a local crew. As an Australian, traveling long distances to other countries and cultures was part of his upbringing. In addition to starting Nation of Artists in 2009, Kotek has spent 15 years as a journalist, including a decade traveling the world while writing for The Hollywood Reporter, The Los Angeles Times’ Distinction magazine, Los Angeles Confidential and Gotham.

In those roles, and as the former editor-in-chief of Beyond Cinema, and Moving Pictures Magazine, Kotek interviewed about 1,000 of the world’s leading creative and culture-defining minds ranging from Chris Rock to Elon Musk.

“Interviewing prolific people was addictive,” says Kotek. “The thing that was most attractive about them was the passion they had for their pursuits. Getting them to open up about things of real importance to them — a mentor, family member, cause or issue — really exposed the reasoning behind so many of their decisions.” When he wasn’t publishing, he was writing screenplays and collaborating on documentaries.

At first, Nation of Artists was an umbrella for a group of creative and community-building projects: interviewing artists in their studios about where they found inspiration; curating exhibitions for Noise Pop Music Festival in San Francisco and others; and creating Kotek’s own physical and digital art.

His solo show “R.I.P.olaroid” presented Polaroid images produced from the last batches of Polaroid 600 film ever made, and paired them with iPhone photography to provoke discussion of concepts like instant gratification, pattern bias and the accelerating ease of image replication. The artworks were shown in galleries in Australia and the U.S., and made their way into a variety of publications.

The projects also helped Kotek develop creative ways to assemble documentaries. An early project that Kotek produced with Irish filmmaker Frank Kelly was the first user-generated feature film, and used Twitter to sign up collaborators on five continents. Another film project, for Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday, used still photography and poetry to mark the significance of Mandela’s legacy.

As documentary storytelling started to become a valuable vehicle for streamers and brands to engage with audiences more directly, the projects Kotek and his team produced took on greater meaning and found larger partnerships.

Kotek’s projects have a unifying thread: They teach the importance of empathy. “It’s ideas AND empathy that together equal impact,” Kotek says, “Great ideas can’t have impact if they’re misguided and lacking the requisite elements for the specific community to which they’re delivered; and the most empathetic people can’t achieve much impact if they’re limited only to listening and lamenting.” Between the sincerity of the stakeholders and the power of their ideas, this theme comes through clearly in “For Tomorrow.”

In another recent project, Kotek used young people’s voices to raise awareness for FIRST, a New Hampshire nonprofit founded by the prolific inventor Dean Kamen, which builds sporting events around engineering, robotics and community engagement to further STEM and STEAM education.

The team behind this campaign engaged with psychologists, parents, supervisors, students and others to educate themselves about the issues facing young people — issues like belonging, growth mindset, call out culture, and racial inequity. Kotek delivered a campaign called “More Than,” that speaks to STEM’s ability to build a young person’s competencies, and also builds their confidence and self-esteem.

Being involved with this project felt like an important choice for Kotek. He grew up with an educator for a mother, and a father who was both scientific and creative. Before following his passion into writing and journalism, Kotek had been on a path into the sciences, and credits that training with enabling him to understand and interpret complexities and bring them more simply, and more emotionally, into the stories he tells.

With a law degree, and studies at The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and UCLA, Kotek believes education, formal or informal, is a fundamental pathway to being a successful communicator. So, when he sat down opposite the kids in the #IAmMoreThan videos, there was no suppressing the feelings on set as they shared their truths — of bullying and fear, of belonging and love, of knowing who stood with them, and who made it possible for them to thrive.

Were there tears on set? Sure. “Thankfully,” Kotek admits, “the cameras were pointed only in one direction.”

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