The Unexpectedly Sublime Pleasures of Amateur Films

By: Natan Wise

What's the last amateur film you've seen?

If your answer is you've never really seen one, my bet is you doubt you'll find any quality in them. In an already crowded studio and indie landscape what can an amateur film, most likely made by a student or recent graduate, offer you? Amateur films, meaning films made by students or non-professionals and a limited crew without outside funding or connections to any studios/distributing companies, rarely get seen, because there are almost no external forces (fans, blogs) looking to support them. For every Stutterer (this year's Oscar winner for Best Live Action Short) that bubbles to the surface, there are hundreds and hundreds of amateur films made each year that find no audience beyond the film crew's family and friends. And that's a shame, because I'm here to report that after watching over 150 amateur films as part of the selection process for the Eighth Annual CUNY Film Festival at Macaulay Honors College, you're missing out on an incredibly satisfying and deeply authentic segment of the film landscape.

I volunteered to be part of a course that oversees all aspects of the CUNY Film Festival at Macaulay Honors College in part because I was intrigued by what types of films CUNY students and alumni were capable of making. Having literally zero educational background in the arts, I wasn't sure whether to expect professional grade lighting and sound mixing or an iPhone-and-iMovie type deal from my peers. See, in the age of the DIY artist, where the music industry has thrived is exactly where the film industry has been left behind. In the past, a band would make an EP, pedaling it from record company to record company until it got noticed and a debut LP could be professionally recorded. But in the modern music industry, artists like the Weekend, Justin Vernon and iLoveMakonnen have risen to fame by self-funding and recording their debuts outside the studio, and gaining widespread attention for those very amateur recordings. You even see amateur success in scripted comedy, with the College Humor/Funny or Die model launching the careers of Jake and Amir and Broad City. Across most of the modern zeitgeist, audiences don't really care if a professional made the sausage, as long as it has the right taste. Where, then, are the amateur films?

Before we try and figure out why the DIY revolution hasn't spread to film, let's talk a little bit about what you can expect from an amateur film. Firstly, they're almost all shorts. It takes a lot of story to make a feature length film, and very few amateurs have the time or resources to make that happen. It's also very rare that you'll find actors that can deliver dialogue with the same polish and realism as the pros. Before you make fun of Ryan Reynolds or Dakota Johnson, think about how hard it is to act out an argument. Very few dialogue-heavy films have made it on my ballot, but the ones that have are astounding. There's a scene in recent graduate Tyler Byrnes' Adolescents where a son tells his mother he's only going to prom if a boy accompanies him. The scene is powerful and gritty in all the ways that a studio film rarely is. There's no swelling orchestra or multi camera close-ups. All that makes the film is a conversation, a hard one, acted and written so beautifully.

Some amateur films can lack restraint. Tyler's film, as much as I loved it, certainly didn't hold back on the unconventional shots and intentionally uncomfortable silence between lines. And why should it have? It's damn hard to make a film, and Tyler should make his any way he pleases. There's a prevailing auteurism in amateur films that can sometimes make them unpleasant to watch, and a mishandled "vision" is usually the reason some of these films come out bloated. But this very auteurism is also what's responsible for some of the most creative filmmaking I've ever seen. Kilpatry Montes De Oca's Entre Cielo y Mar pairs a girl struggling to leave the confinement of her home with a deeply existential narrator questioning theology and creation. It sounds pretentious, sure, but couldn't be less so. As far as I'm concerned, Montes De Oca executed a vision in the same way most talented professional filmmakers do, and I'm sure she did it with a fraction of the supporting talent. This film, like many in the CUNY Film Festival, is of the highest quality. There needs to be a place for it somewhere, right?

I think amateur films have been largely ignored by the general public because there's no real way to see them. Most directors put their films on Vimeo, but the publicity stops there. There are few blogs that write about amateur gems the way they cover bedroom talent in music or comedy, so unless you're going to a local film festival, it's very unlikely you'll even hear about the best amateur films, let alone have a way to see them. I'm not quite sure how or when this changes, but I'm confident it will. Some of these films are just too good. For now, I'm at least happy I got a chance to see a whole bunch of them, and expect the wider audience for the CUNY Film Festival at Macaulay Honors College will appreciate them too.