Scientists have a duty to speak to the public, especially today, says filmmaker Janet Tobias

Her latest film, Fauci, follows the life and career of Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute on Allergies and Infectious Diseases. In her previous documentary, Memory Games, she observed the enormous potential of the human brain through the eyes of four participants in a memory competition. And before that, in 2017, in Unseen Enemy, an almost prophetic documentary, she warned of the threat of pandemics in the 21st century. This year, Janet Tobias, documentary filmmaker, Emmy Award winner and adjunct assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is coming to the Academia Film Olomouc festival as a mentor.

Read the story in the Czech translation here

Janet Tobias began her career on the CBS news programme 60 Minutes. She then moved to rival broadcaster PBS, where she produced the Emmy Award-winning documentary Life 360. She made her film debut ten years ago with the “survival” documentary No Place on Earth. Janet Tobias is the founder and director of the Ikana Health Action Lab, which applies a global perspective to the production of films, reports and articles from the fields of health and science.

Janet Tobias will come to this year’s AFO to co-present the competition film Vaccine – The Inside Story, which she co-produced, and as a mentor at Camp 4Science, an AFO professional programme that offers participants the opportunity to refine their projects and create new science films under the supervision of experienced international mentors.

Two of your recent documentaries, Unseen Enemy from 2017, about the threat of a global pandemic, and Race for the Vaccine (in Europe Vaccine – The Inside Story), about the search for a vaccine for Covid-19, made just a few years later, gave me a powerful, emotional experience. They somehow embraced feelings of the last two years and the Covid pandemic in a few hours. How do you look back on these films now?
With Unseen Enemy, we started researching in 2013 and 2014, before the Ebola epidemics started. Now when I look back, I feel a sadness about that film. We were quite confident about what we were reporting on, both the general threat of the global pandemic as well as specific situations with Ebola, Zika and influenza that were ongoing. And we did a lot of impact work around it. We promoted the film in the EU, we took it to the National Academy of Sciences in the US, we took it to Beijing in China, we were in Hong Kong, we took it to the major medical university in Singapore, we were in Japan, we took it to Davos, it was used in part in English class in Vienna, in Austria for English education, we actually took it to state departments in countries around the world, it was swept around the world by broadcasters and festivals. But when I looked back on that, I saw that it was not enough. Despite quite a big impact effort, clearly a bigger effort was needed. It makes me sad that, somehow, we ended up there. So, for me it is not emotion, it is more sadness about what we could have done, in trying to raise even more awareness about the threat of the pandemic. 

But I’m always emotionally inspired by the courage of people we meet who are willing to risk their lives for other people’s health, and I’m greatly inspired by the power of science. It is incredible. For example, I’m still deeply inspired by Soka Moses, a young doctor in the Ebola unit in Liberia, and also the paediatric specialist in Brazil who was one of the earliest to see and understand Zika and recognize it as a new disease. (Both appear in the film Unseen Enemy – Ed.) And at the end of the day, as terrible as these pandemics are, the world has been full of incredible front-line healthcare worker heroes. Incredible in the case of Covid in the second film Race for the Vaccine are the research scientist heroes. The line in Unseen Enemy, that “science is our best friend and our greatest ever achievement”, turned out to be unbelievably true in the midst of Covid. 

It's unbelievable that we got an Ebola vaccine in a few years and a Covid vaccine in an even shorter time. Forty years from now, people will look back on this as one of the great scientific achievements. And since we are still in the pandemic, I think it is hard sometimes for us to realise what an incredible scientific achievement it was. And that it was a global effort. Now we are all thinking about the country shutting down and questions of sharing vaccines. It was not going to be one vaccine that was needed, it was about multiple vaccines, because everyone in the world needed a vaccine, so it needed a collective global scientific enterprise. I’m gobsmacked by all that the scientists did. 

Despite all the big achievements, you were not afraid to show negative moments, too. You showed people who had failed (which made headline news around the whole world). An Australian professor talks openly about his work on a promising vaccine that was abandoned in December 2020 because of cross-reactivity issues with HIV screening tests. An Oxford University professor spends all her time in the lab working on a new vaccine, barely seeing her family, but then has to pause research on the vaccine for a while after a volunteer was admitted to hospital.
That we had a very strong relationship with the Australian scientist was thanks to Cat Gale, the British director. It was brave of the professor to agree to be in the documentary, and I’m really grateful to him. He may be my favourite character in the film, because you feel his passion and his pain. (Although the Australian vaccine from the University of Queensland and CSL produced recipients in the vaccinated bodies, they showed false positivity for HIV infection during the tests – Ed.) He went back to the research afterwards and started on a different track. 

I’m proud that we showed the failure of a good young scientist in Australia, because science is a huge number of failures before you get to success. And I think it’s important to show that the process involves both failure and success. And that things don’t just happen. Work had been done for years beforehand around the mRNa, around the Coronavirus spike protein, and without this work, we would not have a vaccine either. It is important that we all understand science as a long-term commitment. And that it is worth supporting that long-term commitment. Because then scientific enterprise can do miraculous things. 

I do hope that some young people watch Race for the Vaccine and in the US feel the equivalent with the space race of the 1960s or the development of computers and think: Wow, That’s fascinating and interesting. I want to do that. I wish we could take Race for the Vaccine to lots of high schools and secondary schools around the world and have young people see what’s happened, and also see that the scientists are diverse and funny, people with families and kids, people who have emotions about what is going on, being anxious or being excited or being caught up in a problem or being afraid. 

You filmed during the Covid pandemic. Due to the various limitations and risks, how challenging was this?
I started with the idea in February 2020. As you know, the world was not yet in lockdown, but the virus was moving to the first places in Europe, like Italy. I could sense there was a problem and that since the beginning of January people were using a sequence to begin their work, so I knew there was something really interesting to make a film out of. I reached out to Archie Baron from Wingspan Productions. I think you may know that we met at the festival before the pandemic. We showed Unseen Enemy there, and then I was at Camp4Science, where I met Archie and Cat Gale, one of the co-directors. So, I reached out to them, and Archie was really interested, so he approached the BBC, and, on our end, we approached broadcasters in the US. CNN was the one we chose. 

Then the world went into lockdown, and it was even clearer that it was important for us to have two teams, two co-directors – Caleb and Cat – to divide up the work in the world in a practical sense. Cat worked in England, and even though she couldn’t fly to Australia, she supervised all the work in Australia and managed the contacts with BioNTech from a distance. Caleb did the work in the US with Pfizer and with NIH. We also had a support team in China – I think we were the only foreign crew allowed to do any film work on vaccine research in China. Frankly the reason was probably our work on Unseen Enemy. We knew people and they had liked Unseen Enemy as a film. It was shown at the Chinese Academy of Medicine at a big event. It was obviously quite complex, and we weren’t sure if we could do it. I’m quite proud that our group was able to do what no other film that came out was able to. It does show that long-term relationships matter in our work. 

You say that a long-term relationship is very important when making a science documentary. How do you look for people to appear in your films?
I think Cat had a longer-term relationship with people at Oxford, although perhaps not those specific scientists. We had longer-term relationships with people at the National Institutes of Health, who were part of the Moderna vaccine, so that was really helpful. We’d never actually done any film work with Pfizer, but we had some relationships around some educational work that we had done. Australian part was found by Cat, and as you know, China came out of the work we had done on Unseen Enemy.  

Did you have to convince the scientists themselves?
I think many of them realised they wanted to document. People did understand that this was a rare moment in time to document an effort, and that it could only be done once. 

I ask because scientists are often a bit reserved when talking to the media, not least about personal issues, family, feelings. I wouldn’t expect it to be easy to find someone to speak openly to you on camera.
I would say it is really important for scientists to communicate about what they do. We are clearly at a moment in time when there is a lack of understanding and actual mistrust about science and scientific acts, so I think any scientist who has the ability should communicate about their work. Obviously, there are people that are extraordinarily shy or uncomfortable, so no one should persuade them, but in general I think it really needs to be a part of their work.

I spent a good portion of the pandemic doing the film about Dr Tony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the American President, and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He is a world-renowned scientist, one of the most prominent people in the field of HIV research in the world. But he spends a tremendous amount of time every day communicating with a wide variety of people, from experts to the general public to members of Congress to people in the White House. And he does that because more than any other scientific leader I have seen he understands the importance of communication in public health and of scientific ideas. He is exceptionally good; he devotes a huge amount of time to doing that. He repeats many key messages over and over because he understands what is needed. So I think for scientists across borders – whether in physics, biology, geology or climate – it is now incredibly important to try to understand how to be a communicator in your area of science and share your research with potential interested students, with policy makers, with the general public. We will only close the gap to broader public understanding by scientists being part of the communication. 

You talk about scientists’ responsibility for the community in times of the spread of pseudoscience, disinformation and fake news. What is then the role of the media, and the documentary in particular?
I think we all have an obligation to be really good reporters, and it is a great privilege as a filmmaker or as a reporter to spend a lifetime learning – it is like going to university your whole life. Anyone who is a documentarian, reporter or filmmaker has an obligation to learn if they don’t understand something and to find the right people, the experts. And they need to speak in a language that people can understand. Good journalists and documentarians are helpful at translating hard-to-understand things into information and communication that can be widely understood and felt emotionally. 

And to be truthful…
The truth is that you have an obligation to the facts. There are obviously certain types of documentaries that move in different directions, but scientific journalism and documentary-making needs to be grounded in the facts. I wish more people – at the festival everyone now will be interested, but in the broader field of film-making – would come to understand how important science is in terms of global challenges and global achievements. I wish there were a few more filmmakers who spent most of their time in scientific and public health and health and medicine fields, because I think more filmmakers spend their time on other areas. 

Why do you think so?
I sort of believe that sometimes science and health are more easily translated into written stories and written reportage. I think you have to work a little harder to take complex ideas and move them into a medium that is more visually and emotionally driven. We need talent. I love what AFO festival and its Camp4Science programme is doing because we need to bring more people along to see that it is possible to create a good documentary. I also like the European system because there is money within European government to bring streamers and broadcasters in, to really continue to support innovative science and public health and medical programming of all types, short and long, and that’s what we need to create a better structured system to make sure that people can have access to programmes. 

What do you think will appeal most to the viewer about the documentary? The well-written storyline, an important personality, or something completely different?
I think films are often driven by characters or people, and I think finding the right people, like the professor in Australia we talked about earlier, is really important. And along the scientists there are wonderful doctors and nurses in the world, like Dr Soka Moses. An incredible character, right? We were really lucky to find him. 

How did you meet him, by the way?
We went to a variety of Ebola treatments in Monrovia, Liberia, and we did what I think a lot of American and European filmmakers do, which is we often went to Ebola treatment units set up by private aid organisations or European or American governments, like Médicins Sans Frontières, or some of the more obvious groups. Simply because you speak the language, and you sort of know about them. But I had an instinct to have someone who was a Liberian, so we went to Dr Moses. He actually kicked us out of his unit because he was too busy. But we came back and were persistent. I’m very proud that we didn’t get into the easier thing in that film of finding someone who was French or German or Spanish or Czech or American. And Dr Moses became everyone’s favourite character in the film. We understood that we need to work a little harder to find good characters who aren’t so familiar or of our own culture, and that it is worth the extra time this takes. 

There are also films where you learn about a new area of science through the life of characters. I am currently thinking about the recent science film Fire of Love, which had its premiere at Sundance. It is about two volcanologists; they are French, it is very character-driven, and you learn about volcanoes through them. It is really wonderful. Every now and then I see a film about a classic hard science like physics which has great people translating an idea. So, I do think sometimes it is possible to do films creatively from an idea too. Unseen Enemy started from the idea that in the 21st century we are more vulnerable to pandemics. We all understood that this was true, but I don’t think we understood how deeply true it was in terms of what was about to happen. 

At the time, we didn’t understand that it was “us, not just me”, as one of the characters in Race for the Vaccine says.
And that we really are all connected, for good and not for good. Basically, both the pandemic and the latest crisis, the war in Ukraine show that the supply chains were disrupted immediately. So now there are grain shortages in places on different continents because of what is happening in Ukraine. In the 21st century, we are all separated by 6 degrees or fewer. (Six degrees of separation is the idea that all people have an average of six or fewer social contacts. As a result, a “friend’s friend” chain can be created that connects any two people in a maximum of six steps – Ed.)