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

By Ted Hope | Hope for Film March 14, 2011 at 3:00AM

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?
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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.

This article is related to: Communication