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Pulitzer Center Update March 25, 2024

Pulitzer Center Filmmakers Discuss Science Storytelling at the CUGH Film Festival 2024

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Research shows the same processes that fish used to colonize the Great Lakes help them invade waters...

“Emotion makes good films, and facts make good journalism, and so you have to strike the balance between the two,” said Aaron Martin during the Pulitzer Center’s 13th annual Film Festival at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health Conference in Los Angeles alongside Andrew W. Robinson, documentary filmmaker, co-founder of Smith Robinson Multimedia, and Pulitzer Center grantee. The two presented their latest visual work supported by the Pulitzer Center and published by Scientific American in partnership with Bridge Michigan, for Martin's project, and The Monterey Herald, for Robinson's.

During a two-part panel discussion which split a reel of six films about planetary health, Martin and Robinson described how they tell science stories and how these stories might change in light of climate crises.

Martin’s film “The Great Lakes’ First Fish,” examines how fish in the Great Lakes of the Midwestern United States are migrating much as they did after a glacial retreat millions of years ago. Except this time, they are doing so much faster and encountering fish, flora, and food chains they had not adapted to previously.
He noted that media coverage about climate crises is changing because instead of future climate predictions or warnings, stories cover what’s happening right now.

When asked about how to simultaneously communicate dire climate projections as well as hope that humanity can still take action, Martin said: “You have to produce your story to find your way to answering that question.”

Robinson’s film, “The Vanishing, Invisible Forest,” documents kelp forest conservation efforts off the coast of Monterey, California, where scientists are working to determine if heat and “sea star wasting syndrome” might be to blame for the diminishing kelp cover.

He encouraged thinking of media-popular megafauna as charismatic non-human protagonists that star in nature documentaries. “Use megafauna,” he said, “as a hook to get to the larger story.”

Martin and Robinson also spoke about fictionalization and graphics in their work. Notably, the audience had just watched “Squid Fleet,” a film by Pulitzer Center grantees Ed Ou and Will N. Miller, in which a fictional narrator, based on investigative reporting and real footage, tells the story of how they ended up on an ink-splattered industrial fishing boat thousands of miles from home.

Robinson said that nature documentaries often collect footage over months and of many different specimens to construct an “archetype story.”

“Some of our oldest stories are […] myths and fables […] often dealing with nature,” he said, “and you know how things are and why things are the way they are. […] You can take a page out of that book.”

Martin said that documentary films related to human health and advances in medicine may require a hypothetical posture to protect privacy or give viewers an idea of what the world might look like should nuclear disaster, for example, befall the world.

On graphics, Martin said: “I only use them when absolutely necessary. I try to focus on [people] as much as possible.”

Robinson exercises similar restraint: “It helps when you’re talking about […] abstract ideas” like genetic sequencing. But it can pose a risk: “visual […] condensation of the information like you’re putting things together that maybe never were actually together.”

On the future of planetary health media, Martin said, “The speculative part is no longer going to be about what are the bad things that are going to happen, because they’re happening. The specular parts can be about: ‘Will this be what saves us?’”

The Pulitzer Center and Global Health Now have partnered with the Consortium of Universities for Global Health to organize science communication programming for over a decade. Annual events include the Film Festival and a Communications Workshop. Martin, who traveled from Michigan, also presented his Pulitzer Center-supported work to 240 students at Bloomington High School, outside of Fontana, California.


Video courtesy of CUGH. United States, 2024.
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