Life as a filmmaker

“Hang out here a minute, they’ve asked me to come inside,” he said. My Australian guide opened the truck door slowly. “Um, are you sure it’s safe here? Why do they want to talk to you? Is it because of the camera?” Heart pounding, I couldn’t hold back my barrage of questions.

The guide paused for a moment, then replied, “All I know is, when the Russian mafia wants to talk to you, you’d better not keep driving.” He got out and started walking across the dim parking lot. “You’ll be fine, I’ll only be 10 or 15 minutes.”

The moments that followed provided time for some deeply conscious personal reflection. Why was I sitting alone in a dark, empty parking lot in the sex-trafficking capitol of the world? What had brought me here? What in the world I was thinking saying yes to going on a tour of, perhaps… no, definitely…. the sleaziest part of the world?

Why had I chosen to become a filmmaker ?

In the last year or so, I’ve travelled to Liberia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar. I’ve hid my camera on the roof during a police raid, fled a country without telling anyone I was leaving, and clung to the back of speeding motorbikes and tippy canoes with thousands of dollars of gear in my backpack.

I’ve trudged through swampy and ice cold waters to get the perfect angle for my shot, talked my way out of an espionage charge, almost killed a villager with my drone quad copter, and taken at least 50 flights. Though this sounds a bit braggy, the truth is I love travelling the world. And I love what I do.

But this isn’t the job I had always dreamed of. That’s because about five years ago, my job didn’t really exist.

In 2009 I was in my second year of grad school at Regent College in Vancouver. I wanted to be a writer. I had recently finished a philosophy BA, and took the natural path of most liberal arts majors: more school. Aside from half a manuscript sitting on my hard drive, I had very few plans. A year later, fate struck. Like a door slamming right in the face.

I was finishing my first book, The Default Life (once reviewed in this very magazine), and happened to get a meeting with the president of a big-time publishing company. My moment had come: fame, glory, and a gushing foreword by Donald Miller awaited me. Or so I believed.

Instead, I was let in on a little secret: the Christian book industry was dying, the only people still buying books were housewives, and this company didn’t have any money to market books with ambiguous titles like mine. I should either find a way to sell my book online by “branding” myself and blogging like a maniac, or find something else to do. Three days later, the big-time publisher quit his job. After a year of earnestly plugging my book to my friends and family, I quit mine, too.

But this isn’t a story of quitting. It’s a story of timing. Around the same time I received a double thumbs-down, other things were happening. First, people started getting data plans on their phones. Internet speeds increased rapidly, and people started streaming video constantly at home and on their phones. Which was impossible before then because of all the buffering. (Remember buffering?)

Canon cameras then introduced the 5D Mark II DSLR, which made near-cinema quality video available to almost anyone.
All of a sudden, a job existed that hadn’t before: Internet filmmaker. You’re probably friends with one. Or five. Most of us didn’t go to film school. We learned by picking up a camera and shooting, watching countless tutorials, spending hours on Internet discussion boards, and learning from peers on

Armed with new technologies that made “cinematic” video easier to achieve than ever, we started springing up everywhere, convincing you that you just could not get married without a “cinematic” wedding video, or could not start a business without a “cinematic” branding video. Even though we don’t really have a clue what “cinematic” really means, and it’s impossible to be truly “cinematic” when people just watch your videos on their laptops.

I recently showed a short film called Anomaly to some friends and family. It was a Kickstarter project by some of the best up and coming filmmakers. I thought it was amazing, and tres cinematic. But most of my family gave it a big meh.

“It looked cool, but I didn’t really understand what was going on.”
“The characters were dressed nice, but they weren’t very relatable.”
“They didn’t seem to accomplish much.”

I felt frustrated. This was a film that, stylistically at least, is light years ahead of me. But it failed to strike a chord with many of the non-filmmakers around me. It confirmed a lesson I had been told a million times, but maybe hadn’t quite sunk in yet. If you ain’t got a story, you ain’t got nothin’.

So how do you tell a good story?

This requires a step outside the comfort zone for most filmmakers. We must talk to people — real, actual people — and listen to them. We must poke and prod them to open their hearts. We must read books: long, detailed ones. We must be willing to get immersed in the action. We must start living a better story. And, I suppose, we must become writers.

It takes courage to pursue a creative endeavor like filmmaking, one that doesn’t have a guaranteed paycheque or dental benefits. And it takes more courage to believe in yourself enough to create art and put it out there for people to judge. But what takes the most courage? To try to communicate a message through your art, especially a message like the Gospel. This is the precipice on which I currently sit. And I’m not sure I’m ready to jump.

I am learning that my education and my time spent jaunting around the world of filmmaking have prepared me technically and intellectually for the challenges and choices I am now faced with: the decision on where to go next.

But there is one skill I feel woefully unprepared in, the skill of empathy. Yet it’s a skill that is perhaps most central to both communicating the Gospel and good cinematic filmmaking: to look inside someone else’s life, feel her pain, and then encourage her through story.

It’s ironic that for an endeavor that is so attached to the ego like filmmaking is, we actually work best when we try to serve others by telling their stories.

“So what did they want from you?” I asked as the Australian guide appeared 15 minutes later, just like he said he would. “They wanted to see if I would purchase five girls from them. Come, I’ll take you home now.”

As we made our way back, my driver made a few calls to see if he could rescue these girls in perhaps the least dramatic way possible: by simply buying them. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing more to help them, that I didn’t live here and spend my days trying to rescue women and children caught in the sex trade.

But maybe that’s not my destiny. Maybe it’s to encourage, to build up, and to make known the people who do have that purpose. Or to capture the stories of those who spend their lives serving Jesus in seemingly menial, unsexy ways.

I suppose Jesus didn’t spend all his time trying to build the kingdom. He told stories, too. That might be a good example to follow.