ML: What are your most meaningful career moments thus far and what motivates you?
ECI: I’m very driven in the process. One of the things I learned about myself is institutional life isn't necessarily where I grow the most. I have my own company and I’m really dedicated to bringing about a work culture that I feel is collaborative, positive, and creative. If you can establish yourself enough and find your niches and how to do it economically, which I finally have gotten to, you can choose your collaborators and make a strong team. I love that aspect, and there is a business aspect to it. I've chosen to do more women-centered stories. That was a shift in my career that was really important to me. My team is predominantly women and I work with men too. For my generation of filmmakers, there was a shift. Before, it was much harder. You were generally in very male environments and now women are much more valued, as well as folks of color within the industry. People with disabilities, for example, are gaining more ground right now, so there have been some shifts. For me that was really important to have that certain level of autonomy to make certain decisions and create something in the way that felt right and meaningful to me.
For example, with Fruits of Labor, my collaboration with Ashley who is the protagonist of that film – those are things I learned from learning about Rouch, you know?! I’m doing anthropology in a way that I want to do it. Not that it's not hard, it's a ton of work. I’m planning a ten-day closing down of shop at the end of the month, because I need a break. The challenge is, when you're freelance, you can just keep going. I'm learning constantly how to set certain boundaries, so that I get rest. That’s really important. In film, I'm really looking for meaning. There are a lot of ways to make your living. This is a choice that isn't necessarily the easiest route, though I don't know if any route is. For me, it's important that I’m constantly checking, “Why am I doing this?” to motivate me. You're not always going to get accolades. All those things are external, so I’m always looking at my North Star and what is it that I want to do with my work and what do I really value and care about.
ML: What advice would you give Culture and Media students hoping to pursue a career outside of academia?
ECI: I remember as a student feeling like, this is what I was trained to do - research, academia - I didn’t know anything else. Especially if you've entered at a very young age, or you haven't done other things outside of academia, it might really feel that way and, yes, making a shift can be difficult. There will be moments of difficulty or not getting your footing right away, but you have a basis. Maybe you're going seven to ten years doing this graduate program. That's ten years of life, it's significant. But you've got a lot more to live! [Laughs] And people change careers, and shifting in your career isn't a total change. You don't have to erase everything that you've done before. It will only add and bring uniqueness to your voice.
In the creative fields like film, what people are interested in, especially in the indie sector, is our unique voices. They want something fresh. And that's what you can offer. There are things that you can push within form, definitely. We're always doing that or thinking about that. But ultimately, the thing that really is going to set your work apart or make people excited is what you bring to the table as a person. Having that training in anthropology is one of those things, among other things, that contribute to how you come into your own and your voice. Honestly, I don't feel like I totally came into my voice, maybe until Fruits of Labor. But all that research I’ve done and all that reading and thinking and experiences, it totally informs what I do now. I do short commission works for The Intercept frequently and my fieldwork abilities are fruitful, they contribute. I might not have been trained as an investigative journalist, but the way I do my research and bring a story forward is really appreciated, and I’m constantly getting more and more work from them, you know what I mean? I rely on all those experiences.
I think sometimes there's a focus when you're doing a doctoral program to think about professionalization and like, “Where am I going next?” This is a moment in your life, and I wouldn't abandon what you're actually learning. Because that's profound. You can carry that with you. What you actually learn, how you develop intellectually and as an individual, and your work in the field, that will carry you through. Don't forget the richness of what you're doing in this present moment because it's hugely important to how you develop in your work and in your thinking. Professionalism is important but think of this amazing opportunity. You're going through a field project where you have a whole committee of people providing advisement. If you make your missteps or you have your anxieties, it’s okay. It’s huge, it’s a beautiful thing. I would hold on to that and just know that while it takes work to shift your career in a different direction, it's completely possible and people do it all the time.
ML: What can we look forward to in the future?
ECI: Fruits of Labor just had its PBS premiere on POV October 4 and it is still streaming on the PBS app. The film has educational distribution so, please, at the different universities, if you see the film and love it, let people know. I have an educational distributor, they’re called Grasshopper Films; they are reputable and wonderful. Libraries can purchase the film that way and [you] can then show it publicly whenever and in your classrooms. I just signed on with an international distributor, so if you're interested in how the film might travel internationally, follow! We have a web page and Instagram and Twitter. In terms of other things, I just released a film with The Intercept called Precarity. I'm super proud of that piece, so please check it out. It looks at women during the pandemic, women essential workers. It follows three women. One is a farm worker with four children and she picks in the raspberry fields. Another is a schoolteacher here in Oakland, and the third woman is an app driver in San Francisco. It's a 10-minute short film. The cool thing about The Intercept is it's freely available online. There are a few more shorts that are going to be coming out soon. I have a website. I'm starting to dabble in fiction and we'll see how that goes. I'm really enjoying it, so there's another pivot! [Laughs] But I still want to do doc, so my ideal would be maybe to be able to bridge between doc and fiction and go back and forth.
This conversation was edited for length.