Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Documentaries to Revisit: Me and Isaac Newton

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a wide variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. The first is Michael Apted's ME AND ISAAC NEWTON, reviewed by Docs in Progress co-founder Adele Schmidt.

At our Docs in Progress workshops, we often talk about character development as an essential part of documentary storytelling. At the same time, we encourage filmmakers to create works which are visually attractive. ME & ISAAC NEWTON , by renowned British filmmaker Michael Apted, is a good example of how these two goals do not need to be mutually exclusive. The film profiles seven remarkable scientists: chemist Gertrude Elion, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, computer scientist Maja Mataric, environmental physicist Ashok Gadgil, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, professor of cancer medicine Karol Sikora and primatologist Patricia Wright.

When the film was first released in 2000, Apted was asked in an interview why he selected these scientists in particular. He said he had initially interviewed many more, but decided to select these seven because they are the best in their respective fields and were able to transmit their highly complex ideas and theories into understandable sentences. This is very important because sometimes the top experts or someone who has an interesting life story may not be at their best on camera. Casting is essential.

It may sound strange to “cast” for nonfiction work, but it is important to find the right character who will represent the film and who often carries a certain message the filmmaker wants to share with a wider audience. The better the character expresses him/her self in words and actions, the more the film benefits from it. This is especially important for films like ME & ISAAC NEWTON where the director decides not to include the additional voice of a narrator. The film is carried by the interviews with the scientists and by the outstanding footage Apted captures by visiting them in their homes, their workplaces and other surroundings. With each scientist, Apted introduces us to an unexpected new world.The film is divided in four chapters, introduced by titles: Beginnings, Work, Eureka , and the Future. Each character speaks to each chapter with his or her own experience. In Beginnings we learn, for example, that theoretical physicist Michio Kaku constructed an atom smasher in his mom's garage when he was a teenager. Computer scientist Maja Mataric shares with us her teenage experiences immigrating to the United States from former Yugoslavia . Back then, her biggest preoccupation was how to get rid of her foreign accent in order to appear like all the other girls in her classroom.

The development of Mataric during the film is very engaging. In the Beginnings section, we see her pregnant while working on a computer program to instruct robots in a laboratory at MIT. In the final section, The Future, she pushes her newborn baby in a stroller, followed step by step by a couple of little robots.

In Beginnings, we also learn that Patricia Wright never thought of becoming a scientist until, one day she stood in front of a pet store and decided to buy a monkey. Wright was so intrigued by the behavior of the monkey that she started to get involved into the research about the species.

In the Work section, we see the scientists at work. These scenes function on two levels. They provide visual breath to what could otherwise be a very abstract or talking-head film. But they also continue to establish and develop the characters by showing them in the environment of their life's work. Steven Pinker reflects on the question of what kind of "software" the brain brings with it in babies. Patricia Wright takes us to Madagascar where she is establishing a lemur preserve. With Ashok Gadgil, we travel to India where he is inventing a process to purify water in villages where children are dying from diarrhea because of infected water. The endless struggle to find a cure for cancer occupies Karol Sikora. We see him in the laboratory and interacting with patients. The urgency of the research becomes particularly clear as we see him in a consulting session with parents and their young son who is diagnosed with cancer.

ME & ISAAC NEWTON's division into chronological chapters follows a relatively linear approach. While this may make some more ambitious documentarians yawn, it is important to see films which do this effectively. In the case of this story, the linear approach makes sense because it is difficult enough to make an audience interested in following seven characters, let alone to make us follow their stories out of sync or one at a time.

What the film manages to do is to tell this story without resorting to by-the-book b-roll. The images Apted selects to cover the interviews go beyond simple or literal illustrations of what we hear. They work as metaphors which represent deeper meanings of the situations. When we see Patricia Wright dancing with the villagers in Madagascar , we understand that she has accomplished more than just protecting lemurs. When we see 81-year old Nobel Prize Laureate Gertrude Elion traveling around the world sharing her expertise with college students, we understand the value of passing on life experience to the next generation. We get to know each scientist as a remarkable person full of compassion and dedication for his/her work. The film succeeds not because it is about science and scientists, but because it is about the human beings behind those scientists.

The film is also recommended for filmmakers because ultimately it is about how to cope with the ups and downs of the creative process. We understand the scientists' work is a constant process with all the success, challenges, and limitations. When asked how they overcome the moments when it seems you have reached a dead end, the answers allow the viewer to identify easily with the characters. Sometimes the “click” happens overnight, after weeks of analyzing a problem from every possible angle. Sometimes it takes a special ritual to help break through. In fact, the film’s title comes from this sequence; when theoretical physicist Michio Kaku gets stuck, he goes ice skating. The camera captures him figure skating in deep concentration while we hear the words: “It’s just me and Isaac Newton skating on the ice”.

© October 2006, Docs in Progress. Blog and articles may not be reprinted without permission.

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