Storytelling Science

in 55th Visions du Réel Film Festival, Nyon

by Samer Angelone

The 55th Visions du Réel International Film Festival was a very special one to me, since I was honored to not only be part of their FIPRESCI jury but also had to give a workshop on the topic of “Storytelling Science”. The workshop was organized by the CUSO (Conférence Universitaire de Suisse occidentale) and it was aimed at fifteen PhD students from the Universities of Fribourg, Geneva, Lausanne and Neuchâtel. During this workshop, participants were able to learn from filmmakers about ways to communicate their science to the public in a better way.

My students were very enthusiastic about attending Visions du Réel, especially because for many of them, that was the first time that they had ever attended a film festival.

Samer and his students interviewing Alexis Franco about his film Where the Trees Bear Meat (watch the full interview here)

Our workshop was not focused on “science films” but rather on the storytelling in film in general. The first reaction of some of my students concerned the fact that there were no “science films” in the festival’s main full-length competitions. To explain the absence of “science films”, some hypothesized that “big film festivals don’t like science films”. Oh yes, some scientists also have their “conspiracy theories”. But this specific “conspiracy theory” did not last for a long time, since we realized that many good film festivals, including Visions du Réel, have shown science films in their previous editions. Even more, in 2019 Visions du Réel had Werner Herzog as a Guest of Honour and showed some of Herzog’s films related to science. In addition, the festival organized a historical visit of Herzog to the CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research).

But, let’s face it, it is true that “science films” are not highly represented in film festivals, and this could be attributed to the following three reasons.

  1. Science films and exposition

Science films as some audiences perceive them (mainly scientists making experiments or talking to the camera about their experiments) are expository films, and this mode of documentary is not a “first priority” for film festivals. It could be that expository films are not interesting for festival programmers. Not only those films related to science but expository films in general. Indeed, most of the selected films in the main full-length categories at Visions du Réel 2024 were observations (e.g. Alexis Franco’s Where the Trees Bear Meat (Donde los arboles dan carne), Rising Up at Night (Tongo Saa) by Nelson Makengo, Mother Vera, Kamay…etc.) or participatory (e.g. In Limbo, We Are Inside, After the Snowmelt, Les Miennes…etc.), but not expository. Even the films with some exposition scenes had an even bigger charge of observation (as in Okurimono) or the interviews were not shown and the filmmaker only exposed the narration with poetical/observational cinematography (in My Memory Is Full of Ghosts).

  1. Science films and “scientists-as-filmmakers”

Many of the debut full-length films at Visions du Réel 2024 were about the filmmakers themselves (e.g. Fragments of Ice (Frahmenty lodu), about their families (e.g. Where the Trees Bear Meat), friends (After the Snowmelt, Xue Shui Xiao Rong De Ji Jie), and community (e.g. Kamay). This is totally normal for debut films for many reasons: filmmakers move in their comfort zone, for authenticity, and financial issues. But what if scientists were also filmmakers? Would they make films about their science? Indeed, scientists have been encouraged, especially in Switzerland, by their institutes to learn filmmaking and to make films about their research, “Scientists-as-Filmmakers” (Angelone 2019)[1]. But to make good full-length films which would compete at film festivals, scientists may need to go a few steps further.


  1. The definition of “science film”

What is a “science film”? Is it about scientists exposing their experiments and results? How scientific should a film be, in order to be considered a “science film”? What about a film exposing a science problem, like Where the Trees Bear Meat or Preparations for a Miracle? Should it not be considered a “science film”? What about “social sciences”? Films like Kamay, My Memory Is Full of Ghosts, The Landscape and the Fury, among others at Visions du Réel 2024 are related to “social sciences”.

Indeed, there are many questions about what is a “science film” that we still need to answer.

Anyway, with science films (or what scientists understand as science films) or without them, Visions du Réel 2024 has been a success in terms of organization, film selection, and audience engagement; and as a platform where scientists learn communication strategies and techniques from filmmakers and apply them in communicating their science.

[1] Angelone (2019) A new generation of ‘scientists-as-filmmakers’: experiences gained in Switzerland. Science Communication (3): 369-377.

By Samer Angelone
Edited by Savina Petkova