Best Jury Duty Ever!

embrace_of_the_serpent_ceremonyWell, I’m back from the Sundance Film Festival, where (as you’ll recall from previous posts) I was serving on a jury for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation prize for science in feature film. It involved a lot of sitting and watching movies in theaters all over Park City, discussion and deliberation with fellow jurors (and what a wonderful group to hang out with!), and then a public panel discussion about the importance of science in film (and how to do it “right”) and then announcements, questions, photos, more photos, even more photos, press, etc.

As you may know (it is all over the corner of the press that cares about this sort of thing) we awarded the prize to the film “Embrace of the Serpent” (director/writer: Ciro Guerra*), which happens to also be Colombia’s Oscar-nominated entry in the Foreign Language film category. Here was our citation, read out during a reception on Tuesday:

“for its original and provocative portrait of a scientist and a scientific journey into the unknown, and for its unconventional depiction of how different cultures seek to understand nature.”

I recommend seeing the film because there’s excellent storytelling, and it is a really beautiful piece of filmmaking. As usual, I recommend going to see it knowing little about the film and just letting it wash over you, but if you don’t care about pre-bias, or if you’ve already seen it, there’s a bit of interesting background in this Desert Sun Times piece (with a misleading headline!) that I found today: (article is here).

Being an effective Sloan Jury member requires balancing several perspectives: The filmmaker telling the story, the audience looking at the film (what sort of messages are they going to take away from it?), a scientist trying to help wider audiences appreciate what science is, and what it can do in society, and so forth.

Moving back and forth between these perspectives is aided by having a balanced and open-minded jury: we are not all scientists, and we are not all filmmakers. We all care about entertainment and education and the two working together to bring science to the general public in a variety of forms. It makes for lively discussion, and everyone came away with enriched perspectives from having talked with each other, before and after the viewing of the films.

As I said in a panel discussion on Tuesday**, the main things I care about when it comes to good representations of science in film do not include (as some might expect) obsessions with every fact being correct, like some earnest 12 year old, but rather whether the film shows people what science actually is, and what it can and can’t do: It is not a collection of facts, but a particular kind of special process that helps us navigate the world and make sense of it. The scientific process is something that we can all take part in whatever part of society we come from, so I also like filmmakers to take the opportunity to show that scientists are real people, and come in at least as many varieties as there are varieties of human being. Science is, or should be, part of the rich tapestry of human culture, and seeing it represented this way in film more often is something I want to see more of. I (and I suspect many other scientists) am tired of the narrow range of science stories or portrayal of scientists there are out there in mainstream film. That helps contribute to a poorly informed society, which is a dangerous thing. Things have gotten better in recent years, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Discussing “Embrace of the Serpent” was an especially juicy task because it is a rich and complex story, with lots of ambiguity about what happened, and what people’s motivations were (and indeed who all the practitioners of science were). We felt that -given that we’re in 2016!- such stories, with ambiguity about the role and practice of science when it intersects with other aspects of human culture, are important ones to tell, and we should be mature enough as a society to be able to navigate such territory.

Indeed, science and its connection with the rest of our lives should always make for powerful stories, and that will always involve ambiguity and uncertainty. It is an integral part of life.


*You can see him and (I think) a producer, whose name I did not catch, giving a speech in my photo.
**Photo is a direct link from @rickloverd ‘s Twitter feed. Thanks Rick!

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