Filmmakers, journalists, and the importance of constructive criticism

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Filmmaker Billie Melissa reflects on the relationship between artist and critic, and the importance of receiving (constructive) criticism.

“You can’t win a fight on Twitter,” Gina Prince-Bythewood said during her “In Conversation With…” chat alongside Viola Davis during the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022. Viola Davis concurred and recounted a story where she once fell too far into the discourse by creating a fake account to argue with someone spewing negative comments about her online. “Curiosity gets the best of me at times, and it hasn’t always worked out to my favour,” she said.


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After being asked if she’d read any reviews of The Woman King, Viola went on to say that “how I feel about this project, the whole process … everything about this was magical. I want to keep that for myself. If I give it to a critic and I wait to validate this awesome feeling I have by their reaction, then all of a sudden, I’m going to tear myself apart.” 

The invisible line between filmmaker and critic is fraught, particularly in an age where filmmakers need only unlock their phones to see what the world has to say about their latest baby.

Most recently, Seth Rogen unlocked pandora’s box by revealing in his Diary of a CEO podcast interview that “I think if most critics knew how much it hurts the people that made the things that they are writing about, they would second guess the way they write these things.”

It’s a fair comment. As a filmmaker, I understand the enormous effort that goes into transferring script to screen. By the time the thing is complete and you’re watching the first cut, you can’t believe that the time you spent on set has amounted to this mini miracle playing out before you in sound and colour.

My short film directorial debut, I Love You Guys, has taken almost four years to finish due to the pandemic and other issues that kept us from completing the film on our initial timeline. It’s just 15 minutes long, a fraction of the run-time of most blockbusters nowadays, but the fact that it now exists in the form of something people will get to watch very soon is mind-blowing to me. The thought of putting it into the hands of audiences and critics for them to whip up their interpretation is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. Like Truffaut once said in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1962, “I couldn’t be enthusiastic enough about making films for myself,” and I agree. What is a film without its audience?

As someone who would claim to have had a short stint in film criticism, I believe the role of a critic is necessary for growth as a filmmaker. If I were making a film now about what it’s like to be 13 years old in the year 2023, I believe my responsibility is to allow the 13-year-olds of the world to report back to me on how I did in representing their story.

I was 13 once, too, but the definition of what it means to be a teenager in the current climate, as opposed to when I was 13 in 2009, is entirely different. Of course, this is a small, general example, but it captures my point. If we cling to the idea that ‘movies are machines of empathy’, then it’s the maker’s job to be responsible with the stories they are telling, and it’s also their responsibility to hear their audience and know where they could do better. 

The idiom “everyone’s a critic” has never been truer than with the dominance of social media over everyone’s day to day. The line between critic and audience is thinner than ever, and the distinction between who’s a critic and who’s just shouting into the digital void is often hard to define. Are you a critic if your sole publication is Letterboxd? Or must you write for the newspaper? Are they redundant, and are bloggers now the people you must impress? Who’s a blogger, who’s a critic and who’s a journalist? Does it matter? Is everyone entitled to an opinion? If that is the case, where do filmmakers go to hear hard truths about their stories? Do they need to at all?

All are valid questions, and none come with simple answers. Seth Rogen’s comment has seemingly been spun into this idea that critics should not exist. The key to what he is trying to address is when he says, “they would second guess the way they write these things.” He’s talking about the language.

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It takes five minutes on Twitter to know that kindness is not a given in film criticism. Some critics get catharsis from writing a well-crafted hatchet job. Sure, it’s part of the craft to know how to articulate what you dislike as much as you should know how to sing a film’s praises. 

With the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, it’s often forgotten that films get crafted by human hands. Though they’re delivered to us in shiny formats, they have been born from the hearts of humans who have poured years into the making and deserve to be handled with care. It does not mean they should be immune from criticism. It just means that the criticism should be as carefully crafted as the film itself. 

It seems that there’s a rise in creators who know that clicks are the game. The entertainment industry is what it is. Critics have to work hard to get their work out there, and sometimes you’ve got to get creative. I don’t know whether it’s a reflection of the world or something else, but something about the angry, the outrageous, and the controversial seems to be the thing that draws in the crowds.

People are reaping thousands of views from this tactic. It’s worth noting that carefully constructed, thoughtful pieces also get their time in the spotlight, and therefore this internal panic about recognition is unwarranted. Many great up-and-coming critics I know work hard to put integrity at the forefront. Expanding access through digital festivals and other things has allowed new voices to shine through that will hopefully outweigh the ones solely interested in the provocative. 

Filmmakers need to learn how to work in tandem with critics. Many have good intentions with thoughts and reflections that can help you grow. With social media becoming a playground for all kinds of hatred, it is hard to sort through the noise, but what’s on the other side of that are the film industry’s biggest fans who want your film to thrive as much as you do. Listening to them can only make you a better filmmaker, and while it’s worth giving space between release and reading what people have to say about it, it’s vital to understand that film is a reflection of our world, and we must reflect it well.

See also: Film critics, Seth Rogen, and what’s a reviewer actually for?

Images: BigStock

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