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5 documentaries that are rewriting scientific storytelling

Selected among the films shown at the International Science Film Festival InScience

5 documentaries that are rewriting scientific storytelling  Selected among the films shown at the International Science Film Festival InScience

When we think about documentaries we normally think of the plains of the savannah, the polar bears, the jungle of the Amazon or the white sharks in the oceans. However in the - accomplices Greta Thunberg, the new environmentalism and the fascination for the realness - in the last years general audience accessible documentaries have freed from the simple ecstatic representation of nature, embracing the Anglo-Saxon sense of the definition of Science which also includes sociology, history, psychology and above all the ground in between.

An increasingly wide audience is progressively turning to the genre of documentaries, which has become one of the few contemporary cultural products able to explain extremely complex themes with an entertaining approach. At the same time, documentaries have become a field of aesthetic and technological experimentation for directors and authors, exploiting a taste for the real and fulfilling a demand of the public to be able to understand more about the processes of the postmodern world.

To deepen the theme, nss magazine was at InScience - International Science Film Festival of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, one of the most important scientific film festivals in Europe - where we selected five of the most interesting documentaries in competition at the festival.


Anthropocene - The Human Epoch

length: 87'
director: Jennifer Baichwal e Nicholas de Pencier
Where to watch: cinema

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch puts a frightening twist on the standard nature documentary. Rather than exalting the awesome beauty of landscapes or animals, it captures alarming ways in which that beauty has been disturbed. The movie takes its cues from the research of the Anthropocene Working Group, a team of scientists who in 2016 recommended a formal declaration of the end of Earth’s Holocene epoch, which began as many as 12,000 years ago. They argued that we are now in a new geologic phase, the Anthropocene epoch — a time when humans now have a visible and durable impact on the Earth more than all the planet’s other natural processes combined. The documentary is the conclusion of a trilogy started in 2006 with Manufactured Landscapes and continued, seven years later, with Watermark. Aesthetically it appears extremely visual: the camera travels from a huge Nairobi landfill to the opening ceremony of the San Gottardo tunnel, in a burst of sublime and alienating images that paradoxically leave a sense of powerlessness even though they celebrate the most impressive works of human beings .



length: 75'
director: Josh "Bones" Murphy
where to watch: YouTube

Produced by Patagonia Films and with the participation of Yvon Chouinard (founder of the American brand), Artifishal leads the viewer into the salmon hatcheries in California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It shows the conditions in which enormous quantities of salmon are produced, genetically and qualitatively inferior to the wild one. Though, the point of the film is not to show the distortion of a species, rather the impact that such a radical change has on entire ecosystems. The film has launched a European campaign supported by Patagonia in support of marine wildlife and documents the environmental damage caused by the salmon farming industry in Iceland, Norway, Scotland and Ireland.
Final note: this year’s audience award winner of InScience Film Festival.


Human Nature

length: 107'
director: Adam Bolt
where to watch: online

There are scientific discoveries that do not burst the bubble of pop-science, despite the extraordinary importance for the human species. What is now considered the most important technological revolution of the twenty-first century is CRISPR (an acronym for short interpolated regularly grouped palindromic replicas), it is pronounced "crisper", and corresponds to the targeted editing of a DNA sequence.
CRISPR at its essence provides unprecedented control over the basic building blocks of life, opening the door to curing diseases, reshaping the biosphere, and designing our own food or children. The film explores the biotech innovation’s implications via the scientists who discovered it, the families it’s affecting, and the bioengineers testing its limits. The great merit of Human Nature is to explain an extremely complex subject and to make it accessible even for those who do not have a solid background in medicine or bioengineering, and does so by asking the precise questions, presenting to all the opinions and possible scenarios.


Three identical strangers

length: 100'
director: Tim Wardle
where to watch: online

Tim Wardle's investigative documentary Three Identical Strangers tells an unbelievable story involving three twins - Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman - who were born from same mother but who lived apart and suddenly find themselves again. The film begins as a sensational media story - incredible and astonishing - to later turn on more disturbing connotations, which raise doubts and ethical questions about the limits of scientific experimentation. From a technical point of view, it is perhaps the least aesthetically appealing film, but the story is so incredible and tragic that it compensates for a few pitfalls in the script.


Genesis 2.0

length: 103'
director: Christian Frei e Maxim Arbugaev
where to watch: online

This film observes the harsh and dangerous life of so-called mammoth hunters on the remote New Siberian Islands in the far north of Siberia. The archaic landscape in which these people are looking for the tusks of extinct mammoths looks like primordial earth. But the thawing permafrost unveils more than just precious ivory. The hunters find an almost completely preserved mammoth carcass with fur, liquid blood and muscle tissue on which arctic foxes gnaw. Such finds are magnets for high-tech Russian and South Korean clone researchers in search of mammoth cells with the greatest possible degree of intact DNA. Their mission could be part of a science-fiction plot. They want to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life à la “Jurassic Park”, and resurrect it as a species. And that’s just the beginning. Worldwide, biologists are working on re-inventing life sciences methods like synthetic biology, the goal of producing complete artificial biological systems. The resurrection of the wolly mammoth is a first track and manifestation of this next great technological revolution. A multi-million dollar game. The new technology may well turn the world as we know it completely on its head.