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The butcher, the baker, the amateur filmmaker – getting the language right…

The butcher, the baker, the amateur filmmaker – getting the language right...

What’s in a name? A lot more than we initially suspect, frankly. We have been talking about “what is “Indie”” for decades — and probably will for decades to come. My attempt to define “Truly Free Film” has lead me to be called on the carpet more than once for not making TRULY Free Film (we can talk about that in a future post). And that discussion is just for specific monikers. What happens when we start to get poetic and delve in to the realm of metaphor?

Today’s guest post is from contributor and filmmaker James Fair, and he shows quite well how much the choice of language matters.

Christopher J. Boghosian and Mark Savage both wrote great posts recently that used analogies to identify some of the challenges that face the filmmaker (the baker and the priest respectively). Last year I wrote a post for Randy Finch about why we should be careful with the language we use to identify ourselves as filmmakers, and I want to expand upon why I think it is important here.

This community is broadly dedicated to exploring and establishing new models of cinema to replace the rapidly diminishing old models. It seeks to reflect, understand and decipher the current issues facing the filmmaker. However, I believe that one potential conflict between the past and the future is the connotations of the language that we use to describe things. As ideas and concepts change, the meaning of language changes too…

Let me give you an example. Let’s take the ‘professional/amateur’ divide. Within filmmaking the common belief is that you are professional if you are paid and make a living from it, you are amateur if you don’t. But, working in a university, I meet many people who would argue that LITTLE of the film industry is ‘professional’, because it rarely requires examinations or formal training to work in many of the roles, which means that it isn’t strictly a profession at all, it is a ‘job’. The formal training is the distinction between the two, and plenty advocate that filmmakers don’t need to be trained. Describing filmmaking as an ‘avocation’ doesn’t seem as derogatory as a ‘hobby’ because of the connotations attached to the ‘calling’, as Mark Savage pointed out. The term ‘hobbyist’ doesn’t seem appropriate because filmmaking doesn’t often result in the pleasure and relaxation associated with ‘hobbies’!

Why is this important? Ultimately, I believe it is our human nature to want to classify things and identify our position within society. It is a way of understanding both others and ourselves. I am a ‘nobody’ filmmaker creates a distinction from a ‘somebody’ filmmaker. Therefore their situations are different. I am a ‘professional’ and you are an ‘amateur’ means you are not qualified to understand me. The titles position us within society and even within this community that Ted has created. Even worse, the connotations of these titles have the potential to divide us – the ‘amateur’ thinks they makes films for the ‘love of the art’ whilst the ‘professional’ is a ‘sell-out’. Andrew Keen’s book ‘The Cult of the Amateur’ attacks amateurism for being sub-par quality, unpaid and unqualified. However, I’ve seen great quality stuff from unpaid people and I’ve seen sub-par quality stuff from qualified people. Our lives are more complex than these labels give us credit for.

Therefore, using analogies and metaphors are useful constructs when trying to explain our unusual choice of career to others within society. They help us draw parallels with others around us and help understanding. However, as the debate that followed Mark Savage’s post showed, the choice of metaphor is critical, as they too come with connotations. In the last few weeks alone we have seen filmmaking sharing similarities with the baker, the priest, the gambler and the real estate agent. Can we be all or any of these things? They have such different connotations! Describing my role like that of a priest may help me secure funding in future, describing myself as a gambler probably won’t. This would be a really great topic for discussion here… what is the best metaphor or analogy and why?

Whilst I believe is that the success of the community depends upon the diversity of people; these titles shouldn’t be barriers to our conversation. The new models of cinema haven’t been discovered yet so all constructive voices can help us through the paradigm shift. We can all make valid contributions. We should identify with our similarities as filmmakers not our differences. There are occasional voices that aren’t constructive, who prefer to hide behind the anonymity of a false name when they troll abuse. If you have belief in your conviction, put your name upon it. The falsehood discredits your argument. The language you use and the way you choose to identify yourself informs the way that everyone else will perceive you.

James is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University in the UK. He is currently editing his feature documentary about the North African Sahara, due for release later in 2011.

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James Fair


I feel I should give you some credit for my initial confusion over Mark’s post, because I read your customary comment at the bottom of it and was bemused at how you had been called by the ‘filmmaking gods’. I felt that the analogy of a priest had therefore been counter-productive because you were taking it literally, and even worse, being pious at the same time. Whilst I’m happy that I finally understood Mark’s point, it seems you understood it faster than me and better than me.

I wish you all the best with your quasi-religious filmmaking endeavours.

Jason @ filmmakingstuff

You either make features or you don’t. Your features either make money or they don’t. You either choose to push forward and make your next feature, or you don’t.

Let’s leave the labeling to our paying audience.

Jason Brubaker

mike newman

you spend way too much time worrying about petty shit that has nothing to do with the filmmaking process. who gives a f#ck about what your title is?

this argument over semantics is counter productive and i’m surprised ted is giving you the space to waste the reader’s time. you really should learn from mr. savage instead of arguing with him, he clearly has a firmer grasp of this industry than you do.

zak, now that’s the pot calling the kettle black. btw, i wasn’t talking about you, the zac i was speaking of is a hypothetical person. that’s why i spelled it differently.

Zak Forsman

mike newman,

it’s spelled ‘zak’. with a ‘k’.

and thanks, man. you’re all class. :)

James Fair

Hi Mark,

I completely agree with your call to action and it was really interesting seeing how others developed further thoughts from the the priest analogy – especially faith and conviction in ideas. I agree also that it is just about getting out there and making it happen, and that it is more than a job.

However, whether we like it or not we are judged on our identities and titles. For example, unions and professional memberships are developed on the specialist roles and titles within filmmaking, and repeatability in the production process means that people execute specific responsibilities associated with different titles. The roles on IMDB are divided according to titles and the rate of pay for your work is affected also. Whilst I don’t think they should be barriers to our conversation I do think there should be focus on how we use these titles. Saying they aren’t important suggests that we don’t find the distinction in roles important… why isn’t there a ‘filmmaker’ button in IMDB? Presumably because people perceive it to mean ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. It becomes meaningless as a term – you’ve even had to specify that you are a filmmaker who makes a living from filmmaking, as opposed to someone who doesn’t.

I agree that conversation will always offer a opportunity for some to procrastinate and not get on with their filmmaking, but I find myself inspired by Ted’s prolific work rate yet ability to host and keep this community going. I believe that there is always scope to question the way we are doing things and that is why I thought your original post was incredibly successful at inspiring and challenging readers.

Mark Savage

As a filmmaker who makes his living from filmmaking, I’m not too fussed how I’m described. I’m a Guy Who Makes Films. My blog piece was an effort to focus on the reality that, for me, making films is more than just a job.

I’m not as focused on the semantics as you are, James, and perhaps you’re arguing for less focus with your: “…these titles shouldn’t be barriers to our conversation.”

Speaking of “conversation”, it can be helpful, but no conversation can replace writing a script, getting a camera, cast and crew — and heading out to shoot the damn thing..

mike newman

i don’t hide behind anonymity b/c i don’t give a shit how other filmmakers perceive me. if you judge someone based on their online identity, then you are probably a condescending, judgemental elitist to begin with and not worth my time anyway. say what you want about me, i guarantee you that you are wrong.

the truth is that blogs like Hope for Film don’t do anything constructive whatsoever in terms building a new film culture. it’s just talk. this is nothing more than entertainment sprinkled with bits of valuable information. it’s an outlet for people within the establishment to express their egos and preach to the converted. it gives outsiders like myself a chance to express our voices even though in reality no one listens.

when it comes to choice of language, what i’ve noticed is that filmmakers that consider themselves “pros” [like zac forsman] are usually hacks that make derivative movies, so i usually try to avoid their work. amateurs are usually much more interesting and are the ones blazing new trails.

when it all comes down to it, if you are worrying about what label to use to describe yourself, then you probably aren’t going to get very far as a filmmaker. i’ve never worried about labeling myself, i only care about being creative, productive, and staying busy. blogs like this are fun to read in my spare time, even though this blog isn’t nearly as interesting as it was when ted had it on his own site.

fyi, steven pressfield’s book ‘the war of art’ gives the best definition of an ‘amateur’ that i’ve found.

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