Amy Dotson, Deputy Director and Head of Programming for the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP), delivered the SIFF Catalyst Keynote on May 30 at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). In her keynote, which she dubbed “the anti-keynote,” she urged filmmakers not to limit themselves by boxing themselves into the traditional term “filmmaker.” Filmmaker Magazine published her talk in its entirety, but below are highlights from the keynote:
You are not a filmmaker.
“What makes that thing – and its creator – important is how others perceive it,” said Dotson. In this age where filmmakers are creating content and telling stories on a variety of platforms, limiting oneself with labels no longer makes sense.
“Labeling things, staying within the reasonable expectations of others, following the set path and asking artists to color within in the lines are struggles that have been around throughout the lifetimes of our great grandparents and certainly, for more moons than that,” she said.
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In preparing for her keynote, Dotson said she studied previous keynotes and found that “every year, there’s a keynote that bemoans the notion of independent cinema, the broken industry and gatekeepers never letting true talent shine.”
There’s also “a keynote that touts the promises of a better tomorrow, a new technology or screen or the demise of the laser disk ushering in a new era of creativity and paychecks,” she said.
Then, of course, there’s the keynote that declares it the year of the woman, the age of television, diversity or what have you… But Dotson said she wasn’t planning on making any sweeping declarations. Instead, she talked about how filmmakers need to stop limiting themselves by the term “filmmaker.”
“You can be a filmmaker, of course, but you cannot continue to singularly define yourself as such. You need to stop putting yourself in a box to try and contain and explain your talents. And you shouldn’t let audiences or industry allow it either,” she said.
She pointed to Cary Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Desiree Akhavan, Gillian Robespierre and others who transcend the term “filmmaker.”
“It would be a disservice to reduce Cary Fukunaga to being ‘just’ a filmmaker,” said Dotson. “Sure, he is an incredibly talented, unpredictable filmmaker who makes Spanish-language and period dramas sing new tunes. But this is an artist that makes commercials watchable and turns the whole model of television programming on its head.”
In the case of Desiree Akhavan, Dotson said, she “got tired of waiting to make a film and instead made a modest web series called ‘The Slope,’ one of the first projects to lead the charge in online episodic storytelling.” She then wrote, directed and starred in “Appropriate Behavior” and landed a role in Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls.’ “Calling her simply a filmmaker would belittle her,” said Dotson.
The same is true for Gillian Robespierre, who worked for years to make her “abortion comedy,” first turning it into a short and finally developing it into the film “Obvious Child.”
What should filmmakers call themselves?
“Storyteller, content creator, hybrid, multi-talented, entrepreneur – maybe it’s best not to label it right now because none of it feels right,” said Dotson. “There’s artifice in every term. And who wants to rebrand every few years to keep up with the buzzword of the times or worse, just to fit in?”
Dotson said she’s looking for a new, more fluid term.
“We’re all trying to find a way to embrace the ambiguity of this new era we live in where web series and Vine videos are the new sketchpads. Where mad scientists and technologists are trying to figure out the best way to create immersive experiences out of cardboard and a halo of cameras,” said Dotson. “Where there are more possibilities than ever to have your voice heard if we stop buying into the myth of the Cinema with a capitol C as the end all be all pinnacle of creative artistry.”
American indie film is changing. Don’t get stuck in old ruts.
“As individuals, audience members and industry, we have all have been stuck in the same rut for far to long – particularly, holy reverence to contemporary American independent cinema,” said Dotson. “Cinema is awesome. Theaters are awesome. Communal experiences and good sound and popcorn cannot be beat or replicated. I get it.”
But there are other new models and goals. “Making work consistently is also awesome. Meeting people across multiple platforms and industries that connect and inspire you is awesome. Finding new ways of sustaining your storytelling – and getting paid for that work – is super awesome,” she said.
Stop categorizing yourself.
“We have to stop with the excessive categories, boxes, genres and color codes that mark talents for easy digestion,” said Dotson. “We have to try to stop adjusting our realities to hold onto the ways we consume stories before rather than allow new forms and ideas to take hold.”
Are web series and app-based storytelling subsets of television or their own new form? Why categorize creativity?
“The biggest shift I’ve seen is filmmakers finally, blessedly, learning to embrace the ambiguity that comes with being a creative artist,” said Dotson, who urged the group to “dispel the notion that self-distribution is a lesser path, reserved for those not good enough to be distributed by an established company.”
In conclusion, Dotson issued a rallying cry for filmmakers — or whatever you want to call yourself — to “keep pushing boundaries and buttons. To stop making excuses.”