I had a memorable, somewhat unusual upbringing on a farm near Markham, Ontario just outside Toronto. My parents were members of a rare Protestant sect – an Anabaptist group including Mennonites, Amish, Mennonite Brethren, Hutterites and many other Anabaptist groups. Congregations worldwide embody the full scope of Mennonite practice from “plain people” to those who are indistinguishable in dress and appearance from the general population. My family dressed ‘plain’ but the horses were sold when I was a toddler.
When I was little, my father decided to forsake farming and decided to become a missionary. Being somewhat of an ego maniac (I’ve been told that’s where I get my own delusions of grandeur) he wanted to go where no other missionary of any faith or creed had ever been before. So he took us to Somalia.
That’s me in the middle below, where we were all glammed up right before we headed off to Mogadicio. My father in a ‘plain’ jacket later made popular by The Beatles and my mother’s prayer cap vaguely visible.
This adventure cost my father his life. He was likely the first Western martyr of Islam in the 20th century. The man who took his life was seeking the revenge of the rape and pillage of his village 800 years ago. The last crusade got lost in the Ethiopian highlands and when this mullah heard there was a Christian in town he wrought his revenge on the Christians. It still overwhelms me today to think of all the hatred. especially when you look at the world’s hotspots like Palestine, Nepal and Britain’s Northern Ireland.
I left the community as a late teenager and for decades I shunned my upbringing. I was ashamed of their simple life and ways. Lately, however, I have seen much of the good in the way I had been raised. Today I realised, in a moment of personal epiphany that there are many things filmmakers and content creators can learn from my forefathers.
7 Things Filmmakers Can Learn From The Gentle People
1. They understand personal branding
I’m not going to mention the obvious one of style: it’s just too clichéd to mention they drove horse and buggy and wore simple clothes. Or maybe I should. Seeing someone in plain dress in a horse and buggy makes them Gentle People, right? That’s good branding.
But there’s more to it than that. The Genlte People are farmers. And very good farmers. Their brand is needed when they take their goods to market. They’re known for growing and making really good healthy food. My dad used to make it really obvious that he was who he was. The city folks would often chose his green beans and my mum’s Shoofly Pie first. He was always the first to leave the market stalls having sold everything and often at a better price because it was ‘Amish’ or ‘Mennonite’.
The learning: Personal branding is the cornerstone to a successful career. Make certain you use your social media to put out exactly what kind of filmmaker you are, what types of stories you create for the screen. And fill your blog and facebook notices with lots of feedback from your co-collaborators and clients.
2. The gentle people are terrific storytellers
Be it a Sunday School Bible story or a family meal where we each recapped an adventure of the day, I remember my elders telling spellbinding stories. When there was news of an accident or event, these too would be recounted beat by story beat, crisp and clear. Today Mennonites have email newsletters replete with stories of their people past and present.
I can remember listening to the live news account of the last public execution in Canada – the double hanging of Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin in Toronto’s Don Jail. My grandfather and father huddled by the radio. My grandmother covering her ears. My mother trying to shoo us kids back upstairs to bed.
The Gentle People are pacifists and view the taking of human life as horrible. The next morning I got a blow by blow account of exactly how the men would have died: how their necks would snap and how they would suffocate and their eyes bulge. I then got the lecture about guns – the very one you see in the Oscar-winning movie Witness. And that story has stayed with me to this day. I cringe every time I hear of executions, murders and other senseless taking of life.
The learning: The only thing that matters is your story. And how you tell it. It matters not how you make it, nor what budget or actors you have. It’s just the story.
3. The Gentle People are entrepreneurs
Every spring I’d walk down our farm lane. Peaks of earth poking black through the melting snow. My grandad would stop and stare and stare at the melting snow and the sky judging the weather in the summer. A wet summer meant plant more barley. A dry summer called for oats. If he got it wrong we would go hungry the next winter.
Back in the farmhouse my mom, her sisters-in-law and my grandma would be quilting or knitting things that could be taken to a charity auction. They’d be deciding what colours or patterns would sell. They also took chickens and vegetables to the local market.
They’ve never been afraid of social innovation either.The Mennonites are fiercely independent. Children are taught both to respect and to question everything they see. The pacifist beliefs of my ancesters have left them open to ridicule , persecution and abuse.
The learning: Like my farming forebears like a successful filmmaker judges the market like my grandad judged the seasons. As my womenfolk judged colours and patterns so too a filmmaker judges taste and demand for the stories they want to write, make and deliver to the market.
4. The gentle people are terrific crowdfunders
I was shocked to find out that the Mennonite church (which includes Amish) are the highest per capita funders and contributors for relief operations in regions where disaster strikes. Be it landslides in Appalachia or hurricanes in Haiti, the Mennonites are almost always there first – doling out supplies that cost money and voluntering their time. They even have tapped the shoulders of some leading Mennonite busineemen and formed an international relief organisation designed to bring properity to disadvantaged third world farmers..
As a kid in a summer revival tent meeting (see below) I can remember clutching my 25 cent weekly allowance as the collection plate came around. My dad was the preacher that day. When the plates came up to the front he shook his head and sent them back around. I thought he knew I’d only put a dime in the plate first time around and put the rest of my allowance in the plate. My dad knew how to shake the money tree.
The learning: Filmmakers will find cause-related projects the easiest to crowdfund for. If you’re crowdfunding a narrative film, learn from the Gentle People and find the story within your project that will motivate people to contribute to your project.
5. The gentle people innovate
Whether it was a new way of rotating crops or cross-breeding cattle the Gentle People were expert. They didn’t ever shun new ideas: they would try and test them before they made a decision of whether or not to implement them. My dad was the first in the area to use ‘new-fangled’ fertiliser – and the yield from his crops was the highest in the district.
The learning: The film industry is at an important crossroads. The new ideas of production and distribution are raining down on us. Rather than run and hide using old techniques, why not do as the Gentle People do, and embrace change and see how innovations like VRX can embolden, enhance and enrich your stories?
6. The gentle people are early to bed and early to rise
All farmers work their socks off. This is something I have benefited from. Learning how to work physically has helped me develop the stamina I need to run Raindance.
The learning: Working as a creator and innovator in the creative industries will demand a huge amount of physical and mental energy. Be sure you care for your body and mind. They can and will serve you well if you respect them.
7. The gentle people see patterns
Whether it is a pattern of nature or animal behaviour, or patterns of shapes and colours the Gentle People have always excelled in choosing well.
This is my great learning from my upbringing. Whether I am looking at a screenplay or business plan, a strategy for releasing a new film training course, or a film festival marketing plan, I always look for the patterns.
I was always told never to go into a movie theatre because the devil lived there, and you wouldn’t want to be caught there when Jesus came back. Would you?
After I started Raindance my elders realised that I had lucked onto a great thing with this movie thing. For nothing can change what people think or feel more than a movie – your movie – with that great story.
As my forebears told me “If you want to walk with Jesus you have to move your feet’. And for us today: ‘If you want to be a filmmaker you need to make movies’.
Let’s make movies.