As a student of the Rachel Carson Center’s Environmental Studies Certificate Program, I had the chance to go to Zurich from 15–18 November 2019 to attend the second Global Science Film Festival (which ran in parallel in Bern). This excursion was part of the seminar “Storytelling and Storyboarding Science” by film festival director and former Carson fellow Samer Angelone.
Before going to Zurich, all of us seminar participants met on a Saturday at the Rachel Carson Center to learn the basics of good storytelling and filmmaking. We learned that the focus is on having a good storyline with obstacles and twists; but also about the importance of choosing the right shot angle and having well-balanced lighting while making a movie. Samer Angelone is a specialist in science as well as in filmmaking and so we set off to Zurich well-prepared and full of new ideas.
In total we were ten students who headed off to immerse ourselves in films on different topics, from various fields of study. A jury had selected eight feature-length films, ranging from documentaries to blockbusters. Three films are summarized here, to give just a small insight into the diversity within the selection.
Heartbound: A Different Kind of Love Story deals with marriages between Danish men and Thai women. Over the course of 10 years, this anthropological field study follows the lives of people who choose to tie the knot for complicated and multilayered reasons. Whether for survival, out of loneliness, or indeed for love, the viewer can only understand the spectrum of motives as the characters reveal their hopes and fears over the course of time.
The Bollywood blockbuster Mission Mangal is the most widely known film of the festival. It tells the emotional story of India’s launch of a Mars-bound satellite, featuring memorable quotes such as “a dream is not something we see in our sleep. A dream is something that does not let you sleep.” The protagonists of the film, who work for the Indian Space Research Organization, are breaking scientific ground despite their small budget. The film also addresses a range of social problems, from violence against women to the discrimination of religious minorities.
The jury of the Global Science Film Festival was made up of both scientists and filmmakers. One member of the jury was Markus Imhoof, one of the most renowned filmmakers in Switzerland. He is known for his Oscar nominated film Das Boot ist voll and his documentary More Than Honey. The other members were Janet Hering, Professor of Environmental Biogeochemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Konrad Steffen, glaciologist and director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research.
In the end, the prizewinning film of the festival was The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. The film tells the story of Canadian zoologist, biologist, and feminist Anne Innis Dagg, whose lifelong passion for giraffes is the central theme. At the age of 23, in the mid-1950s, Dagg went to South Africa to study giraffes in the wild. She did groundbreaking work: nobody had researched giraffes extensively before she did, never mind the fact that she was a woman studying the behavior of an African animal in the wild. Despite many publications in renowned journals, Dagg was denied tenure and a professorship. Her professional career ended at this point, though she continued to write books about giraffes and the inequality of women in society.
Even though Anne Innis Dagg could not travel to Switzerland at the great age of 86, the audience was still able to ask her and film director Alison Reid questions via Skype. The interaction between the filmmakers and the audience was especially insightful for me. After every film there was a panel discussion with scientists, who were invited to talk with the filmmakers and answer questions from the audience.
The film festival was an opportunity to learn about the different ways in which a film can communicate scientific topics to a wider audience. The combination of workshop and film festival served as inspiration and education for using filmmaking techniques to communicate interesting findings in a simplified way for a non-scientific audience.