bioephemera

So I’m all in favor of promoting struggling artists, and that includes documentary filmmakers. But I have to say I’m a little taken aback by the aesthetic of the “Synthetic Bio” documentary project by Field Test Films (and endorsed by Carl Zimmer). They’ve posted a short over at Kickstarter, where they’re trying to raise $30K to finish the film in time for Sundance. But as one of my biologist friends pointed out, the soundtrack they use for the sample short (on producing spider silk in goat’s milk) is eerie, mad-scientist stuff, complete with a Exorcist-like choir at the end.

I’m posting the Kickstarter video – the sample short (“transgenic spidergoats”) begins at 5:10; the whole video is about ten minutes long.

So here’s the deal. I love the retro, Mad Men, faux-wood-paneled, clicky filmstrip vibe of the promo video (I miss Lost). I love the font choice – very “golden age of science” educational filmstrip. I even like the eerie music (by Seth Norman, who will be doing the music for the final film) and the cinematography. We all should have a sense of humor about science, and yes, that warning sign in the lab was pretty over-the-top. But as a biologist, I don’t think I feel comfortable donating support for this particular framing of synthetic biology. As my friend put it, do we really need another mass media film that portrays biotechnology as creepy?


Yes, there are both pros and cons to biotech. Just because we can do some pretty far-out biological remixing doesn’t necessarily mean we should. But portraying biologists as sinister Frankensteins with spidergoats doesn’t improve the science policy discourse. And remember that this is a self-described documentary (although maybe everyone gave up on documentaries being factual long ago).

Anyway, because this is a Kickstarter project, seeking my, your, and everyone’s support, it’s more relevant than usual whether I personally endorse the filmmakers’ framing of science (a framing I’d summarize as “ooooo-EEEE-ooo.”). I could simply choose not to fund the film. Or I could choose to fund it, but give feedback on my concerns about “mad scientist stereotypes”. But neither choice really reflects what I want: I want more science-related films to be made, and I don’t want to dictate to the filmmakers about their aesthetic vision (imagine if your grantmakers were all up in your lab meetings, micromanaging your experiments. Ugh!) But coming at this from a science communication perspective, I also don’t want to see scientists who do participate in popularization of their science portrayed with Exorcist music in the background. Was Professor Lewis cool with the way they framed his interview? (Maybe he has a great sense of humor, I don’t know – but if I were I scientist considering being interviewed by a film crew, this might give me the heebie-jeebies).

Personally, I like it and I don’t. I see my friend’s concern about science communication, but I also like quirky aesthetics, and without the whole documentary, I can’t fairly assess its overall spin. So I’m taking the easy way out here – I’m blogging about it. What I am pretty sure of is that my friends and readers will have a wide range of opinions on this one – so here’s the link, watch it for yourselves, and decide for yourselves. Cheers!

*Yes, some of you may now have Homer Simpson’s “Spiderpig” in your head. Here you go.