CPH:DOX ’17: Nadja Oertelt on science and filmmaking

COPENHAGEN – Nadja Oertelt has a radical idea. She proposes that filmmakers looking to tell science-based stories recruit actual scientists into the creative process. That way, complex ideas and facts drawn from ...
March 21, 2017

COPENHAGEN – Nadja Oertelt has a radical idea. She proposes that filmmakers looking to tell science-based stories recruit actual scientists into the creative process.

That way, complex ideas and facts drawn from research won’t get lost in translation and audiences get to learn about science, rather than science fiction.

Scientists should be more involved in the creative process when filmmakers are interpreting their work as to prevent a loss in translation from one medium to another.

“Making film is one way of looking at the world, but it’s not rigorous in the the same way science is, and I think the public has difficulty understanding that difference,” Oertelt told realscreen in an interview at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival March 21, where she was speaking on the panel, “Why Science, Why Now?”.

Oertelt, who studied neuroscience at MIT and previously worked as a senior producer at Mashable, Buzzfeed and Vice, is the co-founder of the science-based media company Massive.

Film and story and science are two different languages, she said. Science is about being precise while film can be more fluid in its storytelling.

That said, the two worlds aren’t incompatible.

In fact, scientists, on their own, don’t necessary know how to translate or bring their own work to a wider audience.

“So they work with artists and filmmakers or different types of artistic practitioners who will take their story and craft it,” she told realscreen in a subsequent interview.

But it’s in that process that lies the risk: “We have to refigure how scientists are involved in translating their own work.”

Oertelt doesn’t dismiss science fiction. She cited HBO’s Westworld as an example of a creative project that presents near-term and future-forward science theory in a way that is accessible to the public. At the same time, audiences understand that the show is based in fiction.

But documentary filmmakers have a different responsibility – one that requires clarity of purpose from the start.

“If your goal is advocacy or if your goal is entertainment or if your goal is education – those things should be made clear before you start writing, because you can get lost in that swamp,” she said.

Filmmakers and scientists should place themselves in the position of the audience more often to better understand how what they are creating will be perceived. Much of the scientific process is done in isolation (in labs and research facilities), and can be difficult for people to understand and interprete without rigorous consideration throughout the filmmaking process.

She said one recent example of where there was a misrepresentation of narrative and science was in the doc Vaxxed: From Cover-Up To Catastrophe. The film looks into the alleged government cover-up of a study linking autism to the MMR vaccine. The film was part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s 2016 line up, but was subsequently pulled following controversy around whether it contributed to the scientific discussion. Oertelt said the discussion around the doc had people saying that different points of view need space and perspectives shouldn’t be censored.

But, she said, “That’s an incorrect reading of how science works and how data works. It places science in a binary context with art and storytelling, which I don’t think is fair.”

Science is not about reaching some fundamental truth, and then not asking further questions, she said.

In this case, she said, the public was forced to determine is the film was true.

That’s problematic, not necessarily for the reasons people said it was, but because people didn’t have the expertise to determine if it] should be part of the festival,” she said.


About The Author
Jillian Morgan is a special reports editor at realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.