The “États généraux du cinéma documentaire” in Lussas, France, is an annual forum for lively debates about the nature and purpose of documentary

Emma Baus
Emma Baus is a documentary filmmaker living in Paris, France, working as a wildlife documentary director.

This year, the focus was on science docs











In the Ardeche hills in central France is a village called Lussas. For one week each summer, the village echoes with the lively debates of the “États généraux du cinéma documentaire” (the “Estates General” of documentary film). Other festivals are for judging and classifying films, for deciding which films will make the big time. In Lussas, the purpose of the gathering is to debate the way in which documentary handles the diverse aspects of reality. This year the themes included war, trade unionism, the Front National, dictatorships, and also – a rare occurrence – science. An essay in the catalogue asked: “Where are the films? Which filmmakers have chosen to concentrate on a scientist, or the development of a project, an idea, an outline?” In fact, although the social issues around scientific innovations, such as genetic manipulation, are widely debated in the media, few actual films on television deal with these issues. For this reason, the starting point for the debates at Lussas was an evaluation of current production. To begin with, participants agreed that science films rarely do more than communicate facts. As soon as a fact is known, it is presented without any room for questioning: because science is assumed to be difficult to understand, because many scientists have difficulty summarizing a lifetime of research, and because laboratories keep recently-patented discoveries secret. “Under the pretext of rigour, cinematographic language is completely subservient to scientific discourse. The result is a slick, one-sided film which remains closed-off from the world,” says Pierre-Oscar Lévy, filmmaker and the event’s coordinator.

Relief de l’invisible

But isn’t it the role of documentary filmmakers to try to raise these kinds of questions? Hervé Guérin, responsible for programming at the French TV channel La Cinquième, defines his function as follows: “bridging the gap between citizens’ demands and scientific knowledge”. The films presented in Lussas as part of the “Filming Science” workshop offer several strategies for achieving this goal. The series “Relief de l’invisible” is structured as a continuous zoom in to the heart of living matter. In the bottom left corner of the screen, a series of enlarged images unfolds: a mushroom, a kernel of corn, a mint leaf. The images are enlarged by increasingly powerful microscopes – optical, electronic and, finally, atomic – and are digitally processed and edited into a forward zooming motion. An offscreen voice explains what viewers are seeing. “The purpose of these films is not to depict science but rather to allow the spectator to experience scale in the world,” one of the filmmakers tells Pierre-Oscar Lévy. A different approach is adopted by Gilles Sévastos in his film “Communauté mathématique”, which shows researchers doing their work. The mathematicians seem to be a bizarre species, with a language and attitudes incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Although the film does not tell us where science is at, it does uncover an aspect of scientific functioning and, most importantly, shows us the relationships between scientists.

Gène/Éthique by Jean-Luc Bouvret and Pascal Goblot

But filming science also has to do with providing information about scientific progress. “Gène/Éthique” by Jean-Luc Bouvret and Pascal Goblot attempts, more or less ably, to reconcile popularization and scientific reflection. Although the form chosen – an inquiry into the evolution and use of genetics – is a little artificial, it still succeeds at providing a point of view on the statements by the specialists consulted. Finally, the film “Passages de la recherche”, by Francis Reusser and Emmanuelle de Riedmatten, delivers the image of a researcher living his research, confronted by the theft of ideas and the necessity of commercial exploitation. This human presence makes it possible to penetrate scientific coldness and to communicate an emotion as big as what is at stake: curing cancer, or even AIDS. Perhaps filming science should be exactly that: not isolating it, but rather integrating it into a context of fruitful discussions. Because, concludes Pierre-Oscar Lévy, “It is not science that is dangerous. It’s the lack of debate, the way in which we let the scientists do their work, in secret.”