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Widening the Scope of Science Docs at CPH:DOX: Storytelling That Delivers More Questions Than Answers

Science is one of the central themes of leading European doc film festival CPH:DOX. Alongside the broad selection of films on offer in the CPH:SCIENCE section, the event also opens the floor to conversations on the role of science docs with key players, ranging from filmmakers and producers to commissioners and public broadcasters.

Entitled “Widening the Scopes of Science Docs,” the afternoon conference talk on Thursday addressed the shift in contemporary science doc filmmaking away from overt didacticism.

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Moderated by Kat Cizek, a Peabody- and Emmy-winning documentarian and author (“A Short History of the Highrise”), the panel brought together Jessica Harrop, an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and founding member of Sandbox Films (“Fire of Love”), Alex Villard-Faure, commissioning editor at ARTE, and French filmmaker Marius Léna.

In his upcoming series, “Origins: A Tale of Light” (a working title), Villard-Faure goes back in time to tell the history of the universe – from the unprecedented perspective of light, narrated by a soft, ethereal female voice. His work, he explains, is based on the bestselling book of astrophysicist David Elbaz, entitled “The Greatest Trick of Life.”

“A couple years ago, he started changing the way the universe is described. He didn’t discover anything new, but he started to retell the history of the universe by placing the light at the center of it […] The focus shifted from matter to light, by explaining the whole universe through light itself,” explained Villard-Faure.

Also offering a new perspective on our relationship with science, “The Cloud People,” which is co-directed by Léna and premiered in the festival’s Science section, is a humorous, poetic and existential film set in Barbados, that looks to the clouds for answers about climate change.

“The scope of science has become so wide that it’s impossible for one mind to grasp it all – even a scientific mind,” said Léna. “Science is not a compilation of facts, it’s a way of looking at the world. And since we can’t address every single point, the most important thing is to examine our relationship with knowledge, to understand how scientists look at the world and how they come to their conclusions.”

The contention being, according to the director, that knowledge of your environment gives you control over it. “Depending on how you use it, you can either do great harm or great good. And most of what we have seen in the last five centuries is the West abusing the power of its scientific advantage. The relationship you have with this knowledge will very much shape the way you will use it.”

At New York-based production studio Sandbox Films, the ambition is to reinvent science doc storytelling and move away from the traditional, top-down didactic style.

“What we’re trying to do is get away from that and tell science stories that ask more questions than they give answers. This includes redefining who gets to be called a scientist in our films,” said Harrop, citing as an example Sandbox co-production “Wilfred Buck,” which had its world premiere at CPH:DOX and tells the story of an Indigenous star scientist who provides a non-Western view of astronomy.

“We’re reimagining the kind of scientists that we’re putting on screen and the kind of questions we’re asking, giving people tools to ask their own questions and think about the universe in new ways as opposed to presenting truths,” said Harrop.

Illustrating this approach, Cizek had selected a hypnotizing clip from Peter Galison’s “Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know,” a Sandbox film which premiered at CPH in 2020 and was picked up by Netflix, featuring a power of 10-inspired graphic representing the scale of light-year distance in the universe.

“We’re really trying to be more playful,” explained Harrop, who told Variety they worked with an architect and Harvard colleague of Galison’s to create the mesmerising graphic.

“It’s a beautiful way to let people sit back and see how far this black hole they are trying to visualise actually is,” she concluded.

During its five-day program built in collaboration with Documentary Campus, CPH:Conference provided a rich, interactive platform for doc professionals to exchange ideas and insights on contemporary themes in documentary filmmaking with key players within the industry.

CPH:Conference ran alongside the fest from March 18 through 22.

CPH:DOX wraps on March 24.

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