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11/07/2014

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Synbio film competition

Not all winners hit the spot, argues Sara Cropley

Film festivals are an exciting way of bringing science to new audiences. But if the films are weak there is a danger of putting people off, rather than stimulating interest and debate. A new film festival called Bio:Fiction invited filmmakers to submit shorts about synthetic biology. As pieces of public engagement, the five winners ranged from brilliant to perplexing.

Synthetic biology is an area of science that has the ability to capture the public’s imagination. It involves applying engineering principles to biology to create systems and functions that don’t occur in nature. Potential applications range from curing disease to creating energy, but there are many technical and ethical challenges ahead.

Sci-fi disease

The Bio:Fiction film competition was held online and the 130 entries were whittled down to 52 by a panel of judges, made up of filmmakers and scientists. They picked winners in the categories of Fiction, Documentary, Animation and Special Jury and the audience was invited to vote for their favourite film. The challenge set was to ‘attract public awareness to synthetic biology’.

We’ll start with the Special Jury Award, which went to Die Schneider Krankheit (The Schneider Disease) by Javier Chillon. This was a fictional sci-fi film made to look like archive. The story of a viral outbreak is not original, but the use of spliced life to find a cure was intriguing. The film works as a form of entertainment but falls down in terms of being a good piece of public engagement. The sci-fi genre is definitely an exciting way of stimulating debate in science. However, the plot was far too fantastical and scientifically vague to enable the audience to explore issues in any meaningful way.

Animation

My favourite film out of the winning five was in the animation category and has no dialogue at all. Entitled Bruce, it uses simple animation and excellent sound design to inspire the audience to think about bioethics. The filmmaker, Tom Judd, tells the story of how an artificial life form is created and manipulated for the owner’s entertainment. The film is funny and poignant - a simple premise, very well executed.

Zero engagement

The most perplexing film among the winners was the online audience award for Who are the Engineers of the Future. The film didn’t feel like a piece of public engagement, but an advert to entice new recruits to work at ‘Ginkgo Bioworks’. The film contains a series of shots of scientists in the lab doing wacky things that are presumably supposed to be funny. At one point a group of female scientists stand in a kitchen and one of them delivers the killer line ‘At Ginkgo Bioworks, tomorrow’s kitchen is the lab’. In terms of public engagement, this film has zero content and potentially reinforces negative stereotypes about scientists. 

So why did the audience love this film so much? One of the problems with the audience award is that there were 52 films to choose from. When people browse the web, the maximum number of clips they are prepared to view on a page is around three or four, so it’s inconceivable to imagine that many would view all 52.

Tighter shortlist

To make the audience award fair and deliver a credible winner, I would suggest a much-reduced list of films to choose from. There were some excellent films that didn’t win; two of my favourites were Gilles Corporation and Miniature Automata.

It’s exciting to see a film festival encouraging filmmakers to explore this important subject. In next year’s competition it would be great to see the categories refined to distinguish between students, scientists and professional filmmakers and a tighter shortlist for the audience award.

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Sara Cropley is
Sara Cropley is a freelance Producer/Director working for the Wellcome Trust as a Broadcast Development Consultant
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