This coming weekend I am heading to Chicago to screen a "work-in-progress" science documentary about cold fusion called "The Believers". Cold fusion is one of those topics that elicits strong words and sentiments. Due to these powerful feelings and discourse about the topic, it is the perfect subject to be tackled by the filmmakers, whose goal is to show the human side of science.
According to 137 Films, in association with The Chicago Council on Science and Technology , a sponsor of this screening, "The Believers" tells the strange story of Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, chronologically documenting the summer of 1989 as well as new developments today. The tale includes mystery, scandal, personal tragedy, and scientific wonder.
Understanding of events shifts depending on who is telling the story. A mixture of interviews, vérité footage, archival media, scientific animation, and reenactments will compliment interviews with scientists, journalists, politicians, and officials. Woven together, they paint a vivid, often contradicting account of what happened."
Take a look at the trailer of "The Believers":
I spoke with the directors, Clayton Brown and Monica Ross, about the film and learned that they, as artists (they both have MFAs from Northwestern University) wanted to go beyond what is typically done in documentaries, meaning they wanted to do much more than to have the audience leave merely knowing what cold fusion is and why it should or shouldn't work. They wanted to reveal the humaness of science and scientists, to tell non-fiction stories rather than simply educate.
Allowing the scientists be characters, full of human drama and struggle, is what sets Chicago-based 137 Films productions apart from the shows that NOVA or the BBC produces. They want to promote science literacy through great story telling in a character-driven story.
One of the most difficult challenges they have as filmmakers is convincing scientists to relax, to let their guards down, and be the character in the story. Monica claims this is due to the fact that scientists generally control the way information comes out throughout their work. She then suggested that because of this control placed on expression, the general public doesn't instinctively see scientists as people, but rather as cold and impartial beings.
Given a recent movement among science communicators to put a human face on science as depicted here and here, I think this film, and the company's previous work, "The Atom Smashers" (which is about America's strange relationship with science) fits right in as it aims to accomplish this same goal.
It was an immense pleasure to speak with the directors. I'd like you to meet them, too. Watch this video to see what it took to get their first feature made and to hear what Monica suggests for beginning filmmakers:
I was curious, given their artistic background, how they fell into making science-themed films.
Clayton shared that the company's producer is the one who suggested science films. This was met with skepticism and hesitancy. Monica had explored and filmed topics about women and their relationship to culture, and was not initially interested in science films. Eventually curiosity took over when they realized that science provided an untapped reservoir of stories people weren't telling, providing them with a wealth of material.
It's been a long road to make their films. "The Atom Smashers" was inspired by an article in the Tribune about FermiLab and the race for the Higgs. It took four years to make. I asked Clayton and Monica about the benefits and drawbacks of being an independent filmmaker in the world of bigger budget science documentaries such as those from NatGeo, NOVA and BBC/Discovery.
Monica explained, "As an independent storyteller, we were able to get the scientists to trust us as we returned to them again and again to complete the story, to clarify details. As independent filmmakers, we had the flexibility to do that. We'd even show up for birthday parties! This is much different from a bigger commercial filmmaker who might send a crew in once for filming and that's all the scientists see of them. We forged personal relationships and that is how we have been able to capture their human essence."
Clayton added, "On the flip side, unlike big production companies, there is no funding. It is always hand-to-mouth to get our films made."
Is this art or is it science? Funding is tricky for the filmmakers as they don't fit into typical niches. They struggle to pitch to distributors and to organizations who grant money. 137 Films walk on the art/science edge. Because they are simultaneously promoting science literacy and democratization of science as a goal, it is not often readily accepted by the art funding community. Because they have embraced a character driven narrative style, the science funders often suggest they search for arts funding.
The good news is they have been able to get grants from local (Chicago) organizations, the Illinois Arts Council and the MacArthur Foundtion, though the monies are dwindling in the current economy. They have also run successful Kickstarter campaigns and have support of independent donors (which you can become). After their work on "The Atom Smashers", they were hired by FermiLab to film other works they were requiring, which also helped pay the bills.
In their struggle to find funding, Monica discovered similarities between artists and scientists. "Scientists and artists have a lot in common. They always have their hand out for funding. They are both so passionate that they don't give up, even without that funding. Both artists and scientists find themselves constantly needing to justify the value of what they are doing others. Strikingly, the argument needs to always be made for funding for curiosity driven science. Is it valuable. Does it deserve funding?"
I am excited for this weekend's work-in-progress screening. 137 Films are shopping "The Believers" around to be picked up by film festivals. I will let you know more about the film and where you should be able to see it in a future post.
If you care to watch this "work-in-progress" screening, know that it's by invitation only, which you can get by going through the The Chicago Council on Science and Technology, or becoming a 137 Films backer.
Perhaps I will see you there!