Filmmaker & academic Elisabeth Brun on motivation, recrafting work habits

Headshot of film maker and academic Elisabeth Brun

Motivation, we all need it to keep up momentum with work and other projects, whatever their size and timeframe. Maintaining that sense of drive can be a challenge – and even more so when working independently.

In the latest of a series of monthly interviews with creatives and business owners, Elisabeth Brun talks us through her experience as a documentary filmmaker and academic. Collaborative working practices, as well as an intellectual challenge, help her to keep motivated with research and creative work from lecturing to writing. Establishing new and better habits, as well as taking time to relax? That too.

We both have a background in journalism, and we met at City University in London while doing a Master’s about 20 years ago. Time flies (and you’re the pilot, a writer friend replied to me). How and why did you make the move into academic research, from your previous life as a journalist and documentary film director? Was this gradual… or was it more of a “lightbulb moment”?

Well, it was more like a gravitation. I was drawn towards it. I was doing a second masters in media studies, while working in public broadcasting television between 2011 and 2014; and I found that it  immensely stimulating to go in depth, to know something so well… that had a strong appeal to me.

As a journalist I felt privileged to meet so many interesting people, to visit places, to gather information – but academia drew me in. To be the ultimate boss of your own thinking process, the pilot of your own projects. The striving towards and breaking new ground (if only a small inch) with your ideas – well I found that extremely satisfying — and I wanted more. It was like a drug to the brain. You could say that I chose knowledge over story.

My ten- or twenty-year-old younger self would have gasped in disbelief if she heard that I was going to become an academic – but I´ve always had a love for thinking. In academia I can think and ponder, and let my thoughts percolate and sometimes fly, without feeling guilty about it. It’s my job!

You have quite a few projects bubbling away: research, audio visual work, a guest lecture in Denmark this spring – and writing your first book. You have a depth of experience as a documentary film maker to inform all that. With that in mind, how do your current projects fit in with wider trends in documentary making in particular, and the creative industries more generally? 

There is a tendency towards inter-disciplinarity that is only escalating. Creative practices, such as architecture, poetry, design and contemporary arts are combined with academic research in new ways.

This is also the case with non-fiction filmmaking, which is combined with research in various ways. In architecture for instance, filmmaking is increasingly popular as a research tool for exploring topographies and buildings. Filmmaking and architecture are neighbouring disciplines, when you think of it. To watch film is to move through the edited sequences, or spaces of the film – which is similar to the experience of moving through the sequences of a building. Walls may be seen as cuts: do you see?

image of walls and light in an interview with filmmaker Elisabeth Brun

One type of non-fiction filmmaking that has become incredibly popular among artists and scholars over the last thirty or forty years is the essay film. This is a type of film that does not adhere to the Hollywood rules of coherence and dramaturgy, but which follows a subjective logic in how it is edited together and told.

Filmmakers such as Agnès Varda, Aleksandr Sakurov, Harun Farocki and Jonas Mekas are typically mentioned as examples. They are not known to all – but still they have a lot of fans. These films can be intensely personal, while also critical of society and of ideology… critical of how images are used in our society, what technology does to our perception of reality and so on.

The essay format is a remarkable free space for investigating places, ideas, memories, ideology – for instance, how ideology is embedded in buildings! It is a very interdisciplinary form, a way of thinking aloud through images and with the viewer. Becoming aware of this type of film, after being a documentary director in public service broadcasting, was like coming home.

This approach is very much akin to how I work – I enjoy drawing on different disciplines, putting things together in new ways in order to see what emerges. I like to work both as a theorist as well as a filmmaker … and I want to continue combining artistic practice with research in various ways. As you say – to allow new projects to bubble away. Ideas thrive on this diversity.

>>A previous blog in this series of guest interviews: SEO specialist Josh Hamit on Google, charming writing, creativity – and eels

A large part of being a business owner or an academic researcher involves quite a lot of solitary work. That can be a great source of freedom and creativity, but it presents challenges too. What’s your approach to the discipline and structure needed to progress with a project? Creating your own drive or motivation, if you will.

Well, the solitary work is the best and worst part of it. You are the only one responsible, nobody else does the work for you; but you can also steer projects the way you see fit.

Doing solitary work is all about discipline, planning and being systematic. No surprise there perhaps. With me, this ability did not kick in before I was thirty-something, and working on the PhD took it to another level. But motivation is crucial. It is very hard to be disciplined if you do not have the drive. For me, that drive comes from the urgent need to understand something; the topic has to be deeply engaging and close to something existential. It should be something I really want to know. It also helps me that I need to be at the edges of my capacity — it is almost an athletic drive, to win a victory over myself, more than others.

I do not accept limitations. When I was young, I got infuriated if someone limited me because I was a girl. Recently I have wanted to show that I could become a theorist, although my background is practical. In the beginning of my doctoral project I felt very much like an amateur. I had to learn a new “language”, a new set of codes. Crossing disciplines is extremely challenging, and at times it can feel like no one accepts you, that you are an eternal “inbetweener”. Crossing disciplines may feel like starting from scratch – and it is not necessarily recommended – but it can certainly be very rewarding.

Picture of a cake in an interview with Elisabeth Brun

In terms of discipline for long-haul work, I put my expectations on hold and take one day at a time. I create a plan for the next six months, and slice up the big task as if it was a cake (no, not an elephant – poor thing!). In this way, I know what to do each day, knowing that it can all be revised if needs be. I’ve learned to put in some extra time, as a buffer or contingency.

My doctoral work was also a very good exercise in this long-haul writing. To sketch out, revise, then revise again, then alter the structure of everything, and then revise again. You have to enjoy the process, and not rush towards the result. But it is also comforting to know that you do not have to get to the good stuff immediately. Knowing that lowers my anxiety.

In my teens and twenties I could be terrified of the blank sheet of paper because I wanted every sentence that came out to be like music. Sometimes, even when doing the masters with you, Brian, I could not get past the introduction! Until the deadline was a few hours away, that is. Back then I also waited until last minute to do the work.

That is one of the most profound changes in how I work. I have realised that in order to get to the really good stuff, you have to start early – and leave the time and space to revise. If stuck with an introduction, write somewhere else! I wish somebody had taught me that in school – or perhaps someone did, and I did not listen…

Recently I heard the UK musician and broadcaster Jules Holland talk on BBC Radio 2 about getting a group of very different musicians in a studio and, well, seeing what creative fruit falls from the tree. (My slightly strained image, not his.) That caught my imagination and got me thinking more about collaboration – and how, perhaps, working with people in different industries and disciplines can help us progress. What do you think? How has collaboration helped you either as a filmmaker or as a researcher?

As I filmmaker I love to work in teams, to draw on every team member’s special skill. Someone may be particularly good at cinematography, others may have the journalistic skill to ask the right questions, a third may have excellent logistic skills and so on. It’s fascinating how a team can work like a finely tuned orchestra when all goes well.

Photo of four stacks of coloured Post-its

While doing academic work is solitary, it is also very collaborative, as you read theory others have written, draw on their knowledge, and discuss with peers in workshops and seminars.

In writing you orchestrate all this knowledge into an argument. Ideally, scholars should make each other better, and cultivate each other’s knowledge outcome – like a team. There are many generous scholars out there, but there is also a lot of fierce competition, which can lead to faction-making and power alliances. The primary goal – knowledge – often suffers because of this.

Previous interviews in this series have focused on creativity and habits, including on social media. (You’ve probably seen the US writer Gretchen Rubin refer to habits as the architecture of happiness. As your research touches on architecture too…) Are there any new habits that you’re working on, either for work or well, life? (Venn diagram!) What helps you to “crack” a new habit? 

This is exciting: habits are very much connected to architecture. Inhabit means to live, dwell, stay. A good habit provides rest as you do not have to improvise. Improvising is exhausting to the brain! It’s like being in an unknown land all the time. I am not going to start a lot of namedropping, but the Nietzsche dreaded “the hell of a life devoid of habits and demanding perpetual improvisation”(1).

Habit in its original Greek meaning of the word – hexis – means stability – the ability to hold and endure. Habit is what frees up energy for new capacities to emerge. But habits are also what binds us to orderly ways of thinking and doing. Habits of mind can prevent us from seeing a threat or finding a new solution.

Photo of a brightly coloured mauve flower

 

In my work I have tried to challenge my own habits of mind, and I have used the camera as a tool for that. I try to see things differently, but I have also tried to crack new habits, as you say. As a former documentary director I had to dismantle my professional habits in order to think openly about the moving image as a tool for research.

(1) Nietzsche, F. (1878) Human, all too human Hollingdale, R. J. Cambridge University Press.

Repetition is key, of course, in order to crack new habits – as well as to decide on an end goal, and then to find a new and better path towards this new end goal. The American philosopher John Dewey writes lucidly about this in Human Nature and Conduct (2002): to challenge habits of mind in terms of how you always do things – and to find new paths towards your new end goal. His work has had a big influence on me.

>>Another blog: Habits: a very brief dip into resources, ideas and (possible) next steps

As a researcher my end goal had to differ from my end goal as a TV director. Whereas my aim when working on documentaries was to create a compelling on-screen story, my aim as a researcher is to generate knowledge. In other words, if I were to use my film practice in research, I had to reconfigure the way I understood my approach to it.

Reading Dewey´s work on habits, both how to challenge them and to create new ones, guided me in dismantling professional habits, and to openly investigate how moving-image practice could become a tool for research.

I started from scratch – thinking: what is my end goal (knowledge), what are my means (moving images) and my research interest (topographical form, film form, architectural form and the relation between them). Then I constructed a new moving image research-practice, step by step, from this starting point.

(Image credits: PIRO4D and Valiphotos on Pixabay; Jacob Schwartz, Amanda Jones and Nick Fewings on Unsplash; many thanks to Elisabeth for the headshot.)

*What has caught your attention from this blog – perhaps something to mull and ponder
when you’re out in the elements sometime? What habits are working well for you
at the moment, maybe allowing you to be more focused on your work?
Please don’t hesitate to add a comment below.*

Image of a forest in an interview by Brian McGee

 

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