Mariel Brown is an award-winning documentary director and founder of the creative and production companies SAVANT Ltd and SAVANT Films.
Her documentary films have been screened on television at festivals and special events around the world, most recently the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) and on afropop.tv – a web-based platform run by the US-based National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC). Two of Mariel’s films were picked up for traditional distribution and her work has appeared in publications such as Filmmaker Magazine, Variety, Screen Daily and Wasafiri.
How do you define creativity and what does it mean to you?
To me, creativity is about making things. Creative people make things – whether those things are rings for your fingers, cakes to eat, buildings to live in or films to watch. Making is essential to creativity.
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed?
I was lucky to be born to two very creative people: an interior designer mother and a writer father. I can't imagine that creativity is not part of my DNA. Equally, I grew up around art, artists, writers and creative people and I was encouraged, from a very early age, to spend time making things: crafty things, painting, sewing, cooking etc. So I think I have an innate curiosity – something I was born with – which pushes me to keep learning, improving and growing as a filmmaker.
When did you realize that you wanted to express your creativity? Was it encouraged by others (e.g., parents)?
I don't know that there's ever been a time in my life when I wasn't expressing myself creatively. It's part of who I am and was tacitly encouraged by my parents.
What is your standard for evaluating your own creative work and the works of other people? Do you think that monetary rewards can be compatible with creativity in general? Are monetary rewards relevant to your own work?
Making television shows and movies are expensive. Both require often large teams of people, lots of equipment etc, to be made. So filmmaking requires money. That being said, I didn't get into this industry with the idea that I would 'get rich'. I love what I do, and I'm glad that, a lot of the time, I can make a living from what I do. In terms of evaluating my work, this has very little to do with material gain. I must know that, ultimately, I put everything I could at that time, into making what I did. That's how I assess its worth: have I fully engaged in the process with my mind and heart. Have I pushed to the limits of my imagination? These are very important to me.
Do you think your own perception and evaluation of your creative endeavours are influenced by the views of other people? What role do you think the culture that you live in plays in your creative efforts?
Here again, at a certain point, I think each one of us has to be able to stand beside our work and say, "I made that". Too many people judge success on certain proscribed achievements: you won an award, you won a prize etc... while winning prizes is lovely, it's not what tells me I have made a good or important piece of work. I am my own harshest critic, and if I am satisfied (and satisfaction is often fleeting) then that is enough. Trinidad is not a place that lays great value on cultural forms that don't somehow feed into carnival. This is something that can be quite frustrating because there's an extent to which one is always swimming against the current and one feels quite isolated. But I try to create networks of people who can lean on each other for support, and they have become increasingly important to my wellbeing.
What do you do when you experience a creative block?
I have an office. I go to work every day of the week, and often on weekends too. I am not the kind of person who waits till the creative juices are flowing. I just work. And I try and tinker and fiddle. Sometimes solutions come quickly, like inspiration. Other times, they come slowly as a process of trial and error. Exhaustion is not great for me, so if I am tired, I try to sleep. But mostly I just work.
How do you make the leap from a "Spark" in your head to the action you produce?
Because making films or TV shows is hard and expensive, that spark has to become more substantial. It has to recur, and has to hang about. I must not be able to shake it. And after a long time, sometimes weeks or months or years, of this flame flickering in my brain, tiny but petulant and tenacious, I try to articulate the idea and bring it to paper. Just thoughts – a paragraph or two on what the film or TV show might be. Then I will very quickly move to creating a budget, to figure out if it's doable. Sometimes the projects I make have little money attached. In this case, I have to know that I can sustain the spark over the years of hard graft that is going to be needed. Some fine ideas just get relegated to the back burner – primarily because the spark isn't strong enough.
Do you have any special rituals that you do in order to achieve your creative goals?
Not particularly. I'm not a superstitious person. But I need to be cool, comfortable and quiet to do good work. I like working in my studio, which I have, over the years, made into a lovely space that's very much me. Perhaps my one ritual, it's more of a bad habit, is that I have to tidy up. It's more of a procrastination thing! Tidy my studio... sweep, then mop and dust. Then, if I'm not too tired after that, I start.
Has your creativity changed stylistically as you have matured? If it has changed, please explain how?
I'm not sure how to answer this. The more I learn, the more confident I become in my creativity.
What has been the greatest sacrifice that you have made for your craft?
I have sacrificed a great deal to pursue this life as a filmmaker. I would say that financial security is the biggest sacrifice and also the hardest one to make.
Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?
The lessons I've learnt from my family have been essential to me: the lesson of courage and tenacity, of trying hard. They also taught me that nothing comes without a price. My husband and close friends are also hugely important to me – they encourage me and support my work.
Do you believe that it is important to be accepted by others as being creative or is just doing what you love to do enough to justify your work? Explain.
I'm not sure about this question. I am a professional filmmaker. This is how I earn my living, and this is what I do and think about all the time. If it were a hobby, perhaps I could keep it secret and not care whether it sees the light of day or whether it engages people. But because this is what I do, I accept that it has to be seen by people – and hopefully lots of people. It's less important to me that they 'like' my work than it is that they are fully engaged by it. There has to be a conversation about the work though... an audience to whom it speaks.
Has rejection ever affected your creative process? Explain.
Absolutely it has! We're not automatons! We're making things in the hopes that they will find an audience. When your idea gets no traction with funders or audiences, it can be devastating and that kind of disappointment takes time to recover from.
Looking at what you have created in the past, would you change anything today? Why or why not?
I think my life is the sum of all its parts. I make the things I do because of who I am and the life I am living. I wouldn't do things over again because I've learnt from everything – successes and failures.
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
Sometimes I wonder whether I'm wrong to think something I am working on is good. There are definitely moments of doubt and fear. But I know now that those two elements are part of the recipe that is creativity – it's best not avoid them, but rather to acknowledge them and get on with the work.
What piece of work are you most proud of? Why?
So far, the work I am most proud of is Inward Hunger: The Story of Eric Williams. I think it's a series that matters. It helps to elucidate the life of one our most important citizens, and it does so with an integrity that I worked very hard to ensure. I loved interviewing Erica Williams, even though I was terrified the entire time!
What is the best advice you've received that helped you move forward on your creative journey?
I have no idea! Perhaps something my Dad said, along the lines of "we all make our own Faustian deal with the devil." Which I took to mean that everyone pays a price for the choices they make in life. It may seem a bit grim, but it has given me a kind of strength and resolve that is still with me today.
To a young Creative emerging in your field, what advice would you impart unto them?
Don't go into this industry if you don't love it. Love it, want it, watch, ask questions... plenty questions. Be voracious for it, otherwise, it'll eat you up and spit you out. Once you start working with production companies and on other people's projects, always find a way to make your own films. This last part is essential: keep making things.
What would you most like to be remembered for?
I don't know... this isn't really something I think about.
If you were a crayon, what would be the name of your colour?
I have no idea... probably Horrible Steel Grey! Primarily because I am determined and have to be hard sometimes to push through the challenges of making films in Trinidad and Tobago.