12 Questions with Mariel Brown
—Published on 21st Apr, 2022.
Mariel Brown is a documentary filmmaker and co-founder of FILMCO. In this interview, she talks about her passion for filmmaking and the challenges she has faced.
FILMCO: Can you remember the first Trinidadian film you ever saw? What was it, and tell us about the experience of watching it.
MB: The first Trinidadian film I ever saw was “What My Mother Told Me”, directed by Frances-Anne Solomon. I think I was about 20 years old when I attended a private screening. I remember that a lot of the film was shot in a house on Gasparee that I knew well, and there was a feeling of recognition – that I was seeing on screen a place that I recognised and had personally experienced. I had no inkling at the time that I would end up becoming a filmmaker, but I knew Frances Anne and remember noticing how she looked at everything – she seemed to be composing shots all the time. I was also in awe of the fact that she had made a film. I mean brought something into the world that was entirely of her creativity and volition. I had always loved movies, but to me, they were something that happened somewhere else about other people’s lives. But here was someone I knew, who had made a film that I was going to see. Whatever magic is the stuff of fate, I don’t know, but an embryo was lodged in me then.
FILMCO: Since entering the film industry, what have you learned and what advice would you give someone venturing into their first project?
MB: I should say that I have never been ‘formally’ trained, and everything I have learned has been on-the-job, watching, asking questions, watching plenty movies and television shows – trying to figure out how and why things work – and there has been an abundance of trial and error and plain old bad-mind (which, although seems silly, I now understand to be essential)!
I had been a reporter at TTT and that’s where I discovered an overwhelming passion for moving images and sound. From that experience I knew I wanted to find a way to continue in television. But, you have to understand, at the time there was no film festival, no FilmTT, and any local production revolved around music videos, commercials and some corporate documentaries. Banyan and 20/20 productions were the exceptions. But by this stage (the early 2000s, before Gayelle TV was launched) there was really no rational reason for even considering a life in film or television production. But, there was that passion… and I made a decision to start making a cooking and lifestyle television series called, Sancoche. I had no experience of production, had never attempted to raise money for a television show, had never worked with a crew larger than two members. I was incredibly naïve. Yet that is what started me down the path of what has become my life’s work.
I think that if you want to work in film and television in a place like Trinidad, it needs to be because you have a deep-seated, unwavering passion for it, as that is what will keep you going through all the moments (and there will be many) of facing seemingly insurmountable challenges to make a film or TV show.
I also think that making a good film or television show is hard, and for us in the Caribbean, the stakes are incredibly high as we’re often telling stories that no one else has told. Be prepared to work incredibly hard. It is important that, at the end of the day, as filmmakers we can say that we put everything we had into making that film at that moment. Don’t hold back. This has given me a lot of peace – knowing that I strained against the bit and did the best that I could. My next film might be better than the last, but I gave the last everything I could and will do the same for the next.
FILMCO: What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your creative projects and how did you overcome them?
MB: Gosh – where to start on this question? There have been so many challenges – I’ve been doing this work for most of my adult life! That said, I think that it all boils down to three core threads: finding a way to remove my ego from the process of creation and making; finding the strength and determination to keep going when it all seems impossible; and making peace with the idea that I may never have the kind of material comfort that I once thought I should.
In terms of the first point, I think ego is an obstacle to creation – it can be blinding and gets in the way of doing what’s best for a piece of work. Just because I ‘like’ something, doesn’t mean that it’s right for the work. In fact, things I really like can damage the work, especially if the act of making becomes about showing what I can do. Over the years, I have found that bringing together a group of people whom I trust, building a strong and talented team and community around a film can help me get out of my own way. In the end, what I am trying to do is make the best film I possibly can, not because I want to show off, but because although the film/ the work is of me, it is also more than me and it has to be able to stand without me.
As I mentioned earlier, bloody-minded determination is what has kept me doing this work, often against all logic. But this determination is not a neverending resource – I have learnt to build a community of like-minded people who also understand the challenges I face and who don’t judge me or suggest I ‘get a proper job’. They are the people who will take my call, listen and gently encourage me when I am in tears and wanting to give-up. They are my cheerleaders, and I’d like to think that they know I am their cheerleader.
The final point was my biggest challenge. I grew up in relative comfort as my mother had an excellent, well-paying job. Because I had no reason to think otherwise, I believed it was my right to continue living comfortably and that I would somehow magically manifest the money to buy a house, buy a nice car, take exciting trips all while doing the work I love. But this has not been the case, and I spent a very long time enraged at what I perceived to be the unfairness of life. I still think it’s unfair – I work hard, but because I have chosen to build my life around a still very under-developed industry (in the Caribbean), I am not able to earn the kind of living that other professionals of my level do. But I always remember my father who was a writer and knew this truth all too well: ‘We all make a faustian deal with the devil.” I have chosen work that is ever-engaging, always able to surprise, delight and enrich my understanding of the human condition – I have learnt that this in itself must be its own reward.
FILMCO: In 2017, you co-founded FILMCO along with Dion Boucaud, Danielle Dieffenthaller and Lesley-Anne Macfarlane. Can you tell us how that idea was born and why?
MB: I’m so glad you asked this because I was so resistant to the idea of forming a collective/ organisation – ‘I’m a filmmaker,’ I would say to Dion Boucaud, ‘not an administrator!’ It was all Dion’s idea. He knew that we needed to join together, and I think I’m right in saying that he fundamentally believed that, together, we could help shape our own realities and futures as people who share a passion for this industry. Dion will laugh when he reads this, but I think he is a one-of-a-kind optimist, who, in his own way, is always trying to find solutions, build bridges and make things better. There were a few other people who were involved in the earliest iterations of FILMCO, but we were the four that stayed with it. Again, you see, it’s that bloody-minded determination!
FILMCO: From conception to today, how has your work with FILMCO shaped you as a filmmaker and vice versa?
MB: I would say that every decision I have made about the direction of FILMCO and the kinds of initiatives that we undertake has been guided by my knowledge of what I, and all my peers, have faced as filmmakers. This is at the heart of what FILMCO is about – building a community of empowered filmmakers through meaningful and targeted interventions.
FILMCO: What has been your proudest moment since founding FILMCO?
MB: I’m proud of so much! That after five years, not only is FILMCO still around, but it’s relevant, useful and growing! That we are, in fact, making a difference to our stakeholders; that we managed to take over the running of the trinidad+tobago film festival without collapsing under the pressure and shepherd it through two years of the pandemic! I’m proud every time we send a filmmaker a royalty statement which shows that their work is making money for them! I am so proud of our little FILMCO team – their passion and commitment and their willingness to take on new challenges and to keep learning! It feels very good that we are now distributing films theatrically and building essential relationships with cinemas! And finally, I am very proud of the fact that as founders, we have given FILMCO the space to grow and we are ensuring its longevity by building a strong and committed board of directors.
FILMCO: What do you hope FILMCO will be doing in 5 years?
MB: I hope FILMCO will be doing exactly what we’re doing now, finding ways to provide meaningful support in the growing of our Caribbean film and television industry.
FILMCO: Your work has shown in numerous film festivals, do you have a favourite experience? And what’s your advice for filmmakers now experiencing the festival circuit?
MB: I think my favourite film festival experience ever was sitting in the audience at Movietowne during the trinidad+tobago film festival and watching The Insatiable Season. Nothing can compare to watching your work in an audience of your people and realising that they are enjoying it and get it! I have also loved participating in IFF Panama – a warm, friendly festival where you’re treated like a rock star!
If you’re a filmmaker with a film in a festival, this is a time of work for you – be prepared! Find out who the attending industry guests will be, try to set meetings with them, go to every event to which you are invited and use every conversation as a chance to pitch your next project! Have something bubbling away. Film festivals are as much about the film you are showing as they are about the film you’re making! Don’t squander a single minute! And small film festivals, like ttff, can often be incredibly beneficial as it’s easier to meet with industry than it would be at a large festival.
FILMCO: When working on Unfinished Sentences was there ever a moment where you needed to take a step back/or a break considering the very personal nature of the film? If so, how did you deal with that?
MB: I would say that even though I began developing the initial ideas for Unfinished Sentences in 2010, it wasn’t actually until 2014 that I actively started pushing the project forward. And that is because I needed time: to grieve (my father had only recently died, and the film is primarily about our relationship); to come to terms with the fact that the film I wanted to make wasn’t in fact the film I started out making; to find the courage to make the film I wanted to make, even though I knew that it would reveal a lot about my family and my inner life.
One of the best decisions I made was to bring on a script consultant, Fernanda Rossi (whom I had met at ttff several years earlier). She had an objective distance from the story that I simply couldn’t have, and this allowed her to see its strengths and weaknesses much more clearly than I could have, and to advise me accordingly. And of course, I relied heavily on my community of supporters to get me through the many moments of fear and doubt.
FILMCO: You are currently working on 1990, a documentary about the 1990 coup. What drove you to tell this story and how has it been tackling such a controversial event?
MB: ‘1990’ has been a passion project of mine for well over a decade. And I am so excited about the team that I’ve been able to bring together to support the project. The muslimeen are, I think, still a source of fear for many people in Trinidad and Tobago, and that means that finding support for the project, particularly financial, has been very difficult. But with the support of my producers, Tracy Farrag and Lesley-Anne Macfarlane, I am determined to see this through. And one of the most meaningful things about the project has been that we are documenting so many stories of that time – giving people the space and respect that is their due. For me, personally, it has been incredibly humbling that so many people have been willing to share their stories with me. And what stories they are!