My Life In Film, So Far… Art vs Science

Like many other conversations about creativity, this one begins with a short discussion on the brain. I’m sure many people are quite aware of the concept of brain lateralization. They might loosely understand it as this idea that the brain is distinctly divided into two halves that control different functions of the body. Furthermore, I think a lot of people understand the idea of neural crossover – that what the right eye sees gets processed by the left occipital lobe, or that the movements of the left arm are controlled by the signals produced in the motor cortex of the brain’s right hemisphere – and people also tend to associate hand dominance with brain dominance, this idea that if you’re right handed, you’re probably ‘left brained’ too. What this means in reality is actually very complicated, and the brain’s functionality is a lot more dynamic, adaptable and complex than such descriptions make it seem. Furthermore, talking about the brain as two distinct halves sort of discourages the understanding that at any given time the brain is a single wholistic mechanism in action and that neural crossover in the middle of the brain, the communication between hemispheres,  is as vital as either hemisphere’s individual processing.  But still, popular public understandings of brain lateralization and hemisphere dominance have lead to the creation of some drastically oversimplified facts and, in some cases, misguided stereotypes – such as the dualistic explanation seen in the image below.

This particular image of a stereotypically divided brain comes from a Huffington Post article, but a quick internet search can pull up thousands of these images from a multitude of sources

These popular binary explanations about physical brain biology and its links to cognitive aptitude, identity construction and behaviour are drastically oversimplified and modern neuropsychological research has much to say on the nuances and counter examples to these topics, but the founding research that these two-dimensional stereotypes rise from is still quite valid, and thus the social perpetuation of these stereotypes continues.

To illustrate my central fears with the perpetuation of such categorically incorrect stereotypes, I’ll draw on a slightly different example to highlight this issues of social understandings influencing physical outcomes. For several decades now many psychological, educational and neurological studies have postulated physical reasons as to why their research shows that men are supposedly better than women at mathematics and spatial reasoning tasks. However, more contemporary research argues that it is actually the widely held social belief that there are differences between men and women’s mathematical aptitudes that seems to be perpetuating and creating these differing results – as this public perception deeply alters both a student’s performance in a given task and alters the teacher’s expectations of the students, all of which affect the final outcome of the student’s work. I feel that in many ways these similarly reductive stereotypes about brain dominance can also negatively alter the expectations placed on people – especially young people still developing their identities – thus affecting their externalized behaviours and ultimately the course of their identity construction.

Take me for example, I’m left handed, so I’m assumedly right brain dominant – and whilst I may be somewhat creative and emotive  by nature, and  an audio-visual thinker – I also strongly display several left brain traits, for example, I’ve always been pretty good with numbers, logic puzzles, and I’ve always had quite a scientific fascination with the world.  When I was really little, I was quite obsessed with all forms of bugs and I told my parents I wanted to be an ant when I grew up, because they were my favourite. When I was old enough to realize I couldn’t be an ant, I decided I wanted to be a mine worker, because they were the next best human equivalent… But as I got a little older and learnt more about class divides and wage-to-labour inequalities, I decided that it might be better to tell adults I wanted to be an entomologist, rather than a miner.

It was only in early high school that I became aware of my affinity for film, photography and other visual communication media. Since before the age of five, I can remember semiotically analysing advertisements, cartoons, movies and even soapies while watching TV with my mom, although neither of us new that’s what to call it until I learned about semiotics and media studies in grade eight or nine English class. It was also only then that I think I started considering filmmaking, creating video media, as a viable career path.

English and Afrikaans were mandatory at school, and through these two subjects my passion for creative writing, my interest in media studies and curiosity for the social sciences only continued to grow. My elective subjects on the other hand – Physics, Biology, Geography and Mathematics – appealed to the young scientist in me. Whilst many of my peers seemed to hate these subjects, but only took them to ‘keep their university options open’, I simply chose these subjects because to me they were the  most interesting choices, with the most stimulating course work. By the time grade ten rolled around I was pretty sure I wanted to be a photographer, a writer, or a film director, so I didn’t quite see how knowing about atomic structures or tectonic shifts would help me post-high school, but I sure found those topics more interesting than taking something like economics, French or computer studies.

These were some photographs I took of my most influential teachers during high school

My older brother had gone to university and I was quite certain I’d also continue studying after high school as the practical benefits of having a tertiary education – like employability and salary expectations – had been made quite clear to me. I had also always been rather interested in the research and information my brother brought home with him whilst obtaining his psychology MA, and through talking to him about his studies and his experiences at university I understood that time spent at a tertiary institution was important not only for field-specific skills, or accumulating thoughts and knowledge, but also vital for critically engaging with information and adapting how one works with thoughts and knowledge.

I knew I was going to university, I knew I wanted to study filmmaking, but it was during my gap year – working as a salesperson in a retail electronics store – when my dad and my brother, during many conversations with me, strongly suggested that I should consider a more practical degree, such as statistics or environmental science, with a more stable employment rate. I had enjoyed geography and biology in high school, I love nature and the outdoors, and furthermore, their arguments that ‘I could start a film career without a film degree, but couldn’t get an environmental job without a scientific degree’ seemed pretty sound at the time – so in 2010 I began my undergraduate studies in environmental sciences, with psychology and philosophy as electives… Or rather as a backup degree. As with high school, again I found the scientific aspects of the degree, such as geology, quite fascinating and enjoyable whilst the sections on corporate and environmental policy  reminded me why I had originally wanted to make films and also why I’ve never really wanted a stable corporate career where economic profit is the primary goal.  So by the start of my second year at university, my degree major had changed to psychology & philosophy, with film as an elective, and by July 2012 I was one of the twenty four students selected to major in UCT’s practical filmmaking degree program.

I had pictured as many viable career paths with a degree in environmental science as I could, and still my desire to make films, write books, or find some other means of creatively communicating ideas reigned over me. That creative drive, coupled with my belief that my degree should assist with my future career, drove me to pursue film as my major. Through learning about the history of cinema and evolution of recording technology the degree definitely equipped me with a comprehensive set of technical skills and information that inform my filmmaking practices today, and in these instances my history with chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, psychology and philosophy kept providing useful additions to my understanding of the concepts being taught to me – for example, my interest in mathematics made calculating the distances required for a perfect dolly-zoom a lot easier than simply using trial and error. Learning more about the evolution of visual arts in general, from before the printing press to the age of viral videos, and gaining a deeper understanding of how visual media has been a pillar of both collective learning and social change in human history was exactly the kind of tertiary education I was looking for.

After graduating I spent a season, a Cape Town filmic season, working on a multitude of productions, from Hollywood films to television shows, music videos, commercials and even political campaign videos… but that’s a different rant for a-whole-nother article. By the end of 2014 I found myself back at the university I had graduated from, this time working for the film department as a freelance cinematographer and editor, creating videos for various departments and affiliates of the educational institution. Some of my favourite projects included work done for the Groote Schuur Hospital’s oncology department, physiotherapy department, their malaria research division, the university’s own chemical engineering department, and of course my time spent working with several masters documentary students on their projects. During that year both my desires to make meaningful and impactful videos and my ever present curiosity for scientific understanding were given room to flourish, and my work for the university helped guide the trajectory that my freelance career is currently taking. Since my year working at UCT I’ve spent some time as editor of a TV show intended as edutainment for child and teen viewers and, together as JDBA Creatives, Jamie and I have worked on a broad range of educational based media and continue to emphasize social, environmental and educational progress in the creative projects we undertake.

Show reel 03 Show reel 04 _Q9A8804 IMG_1770Jamie P1040148FITLABsmall P1040221 edit

Above are some highlights of previous documentaries and JDBA projects

I can do anything I put my mind to, but I can’t do everything I put my mind to – this is a saying that comes to mind quite often, especially when I think of all the other things I could do with my life besides filmmaking. This is because scientific inquiry and philosophical scepticism are foundational pillars to my world view and a life dedicated to research, to creating new understandings about how the universe functions, is a worthy goal indeed. I also believe though, that it is as important to create media that can engage the broader public with these new ideas and stimulate critical, rational and diplomatic conversation.

Right now I love the documentary work I’m doing, but my ideal work would be to communicate and interrogate real ideas about social and humanist concepts through fictional narratives. As a role model of mine once said, cinema should act as a night school to educate the public and lead by example. I understand that so much media today is created to entertain rather than to inform, but we can’t ignore the fact that many of the underlying social assumptions seen in these films and shows – from stereotypes about gender to ones about violence or intelligence – deeply affect the way many viewers end up perceiving the real world around them. Thus, as with our case study earlier about girls and mathematical aptitude, perhaps if we stop publicly perpetuating a lot of these false stereotypes, they might stop seeming so true.