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The art of science documentaries


Sonya Pemberton is an Australian science film-maker. She talks to Friona Gruber about art, science and controversy.


A young couple dance a slow and sexy tango against the backdrop of a German castle; an old Hollywood film shows a man frantically trying to turn back the hands of a clock, and a vivid animation full of sepia washes and fine line portraits conveys the history of smallpox inoculation; Sonya Pemberton’s quest to explain science through television is full of memorable sequences and striking images.

“It’s art. I like to think every film I make is beautiful, I don’t want to make ugly films,” she says. She cites influences as varied as Jane Campion, David Lynch and Federico Fellini. “I draw my inspiration from drama,” she explains.

We’re in Pemberton’s office at Genepool Productions in Melbourne, currently neat but usually piled high with research notes, pictures and storyboards, she says.

A pool table dominates the downstairs space, an arena of frequent and friendly contest with her cinematographer husband, Harry Panagiotidis, who also shoots her films; a large golden statue props up a small table. “It’s incredibly heavy,” says Pemberton, lifting her Emmy from the US Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

It’s the top gong for “outstanding science and technology programming” and was awarded last year for Immortal. The 2010 film examines the research of Nobel Prize winning scientist Dr Elizabeth Blackburn into telomere biology – the study of the caps on the ends of chromosomes – and its implications for arresting the ageing process. Pemberton has won the Eureka Prize for Science Journalism three times and dozens of other awards in a career spanning more than 25 years.

You need to find visual metaphors for material that belongs in a lab under a microscope, Pemberton says. Turning back the hands of a clock to slow down time is obvious and powerful. The tango dancers are a more complicated metaphor for the phenomenon of cancer à deux, or conjugal cancer, virally transmitted between two people in a sexual relationship. It was part of a 2009 documentary called Catching Cancer that explores the part played by infection. It features the work of some of the world’s most eminent medical scientists including Nobel laureate German Professor Harald Zur Hausen who identified the link between cervical cancer and the human papillomavirus (HPV), Professor Ian Frazer, the Scottish-born Australian who co-developed a vaccine against HPV, and Australian physician Professor Barry Marshall, who received a Nobel Prize for his work on Helicobacter pylori and its link to peptic ulcers and stomach cancer.

In Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines, her latest documentary, Pemberton worked closely with designer Domenic Bartolo and his Melbourne design agency 21.19 to come up with an animation that continuously erases and redraws itself, to both explain the science and history of inoculation and to suggest how ideas change over time.

As a documentary film-maker you need to convey complicated information and controversial ideas.

Having made or commissioned hundreds of hours of science documentary TV, Pemberton says she has a series of ground rules that emphasise rigour in research and presentation. “Fact check, fact check, fact check, never rely on one source, when in doubt, pick up a phone, don’t email,” she intones. As a documentary film-maker you need to convey complicated information and controversial ideas, she says. And it has to be in a manner that engages the general viewer while satisfying the rigours of a scientific debate.

On an artistic level, she’s a strong advocate of the three-act structure and what she terms “flip moments” that surprise viewers and take them down new avenues of enquiry. The 32-35 minute mark of an hour-long documentary is the time to throw a switch and keep viewers locked in and on their toes, she says.

Her rules also include using science experts who, while not appearing on screen, act as guides as to what the experts who do appear say. For Jabbed this included Professor Robert Booy, paediatrician and head of the clinical research team at Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance. “Pemberton is a scientist in disguise, with a high attention to detail; she can sniff out a very interesting story and explain it beautifully,” Booy says.

Despite her cinematic aesthetics and love of startling images and surprising twists, Pemberton says the information always takes precedence. “Some broadcasters dislike it when I tell them that if I have to choose between being a film-maker and being a science communicator, I’m a science communicator first,” she says.

Pemberton can stare down most TV executives. She’s been one herself, as head of the specialist factual division of ABC TV between 2004 and 2007, and as well as writing and directing 50 hours of documentary television has chalked up more than 700 hours of TV content as a commissioner, producer, co-producer and executive producer.

"I’m not working for the government and no one tells me what to put in my films.”

Genepool Productions, formed in 2011, is a joint venture between Pemberton Films and one of Australia’s largest independent television content providers, Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, a company co-founded by TV presenter and producer Andrew Denton. Pemberton retains artistic freedom and strives to avoid compromising alliances. “I’m not working for the government and no one tells me what to put in my films,” she says. She has turned down funding from international health bodies in order to maintain that autonomy.

Her office walls are stuck with pictures and quotations. A missive from the Royal Grandmother of Bhutan (site of the first HPV vaccination program in the developing world and one of the locations in Jabbed) reads: “Sonya, with rightful intention, plus effort, plus mindfulness, one makes merit.” Another, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, is a recipe for a well-lived life: “To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children … this is to have succeeded.”

“It’s apparently erroneously attributed,” says Pemberton. “It’s said by some to be by Bessie Anderson Stanley, not Emerson. Just shows, nothing is simple.” In fact, she adds, warming to her theme, embracing complexity is a guiding principle in her work as a documentary film-maker.

Alongside an illustration of a syringe filled with hearts, another image from Jabbed, there’s a photo of her Northern Irish mother, Shavda Pemberton, a vivacious woman, she says, with a strong spirituality and a questing nature, from whom she inherited her flair, acute bullshit detector and belief in the interconnectedness of humankind. Her English paternal grandfather, Professor John Pemberton, a pioneer in the field of epidemiology, is also there. So too is one of her greatest champions, immunogeneticist Dr Malcolm Simons, founder of the company Genetic Technologies, who featured in a film she made in 2003 called Genius of Junk.

They have all died in the past few years and she says she feels their lack of support and advice keenly. “Malcolm became one of my dragons, one of those scary powerful shiny super smart people who fly higher than most,” she explains.

Her grandfather and her father (Dr Patrick Pemberton, retired head of Neonatology at Princess Margaret Hospital in Perth, WA and happily still very much alive) always impressed upon her the need to address the important, fundamental questions. “I grew up with my father and grandfather saying ‘justify your position’,” she says. They also brought her up to be aware that science changes. “So I’m always writing scripts very carefully to place them in the context of their time,” she says.

She recalls a film she made years before for CSIRO on bovine spongiform encephalopathy where she interviewed an eminent scientist who said the disease would never transmit to humans, a standpoint prevalent at the time but disproved a few years later by the emergence of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

“I was in my twenties and I learned a lesson; that even the best brains in the world can get it wrong,” she says.

Another photo on the pinboard is of a little boy called Luke Philbin. He featured in Jabbed, one of several case studies that looked at possible adverse and severe reactions to inoculation. Pemberton is dedicated to the people whose lives she films, says Denton. These include Luke and his family and some of the participants in Angels and Demons, a film about mental illness that Denton made with Pemberton in 2008. “Sonya has a great instinct for people, a genuine friendliness and a duty of care,” he says.

Jabbed, shown on SBS in June, has garnered a lot of praise for its impact on a public whose anxieties about the side effects of vaccination sometimes outweigh a fear of the diseases they combat. One of the film’s participants, distinguished research biologist and WHO consultant Sir Gustav Nossal, describes it as “a beautiful, moving, authoritative and balanced account of the risks and benefits of immunisation."

Yet scrolling through the online comments posted after the documentary’s broadcast makes it clear not everyone agrees. Alongside widespread praise there are dozens of responses from a vociferous anti-vaccine minority including claims for the now-disproved link between vaccination and autism.

Pemberton says she’s cautious about making too many comments concerning the anti-vaccine lobby and reluctant to inflame vitriol, but admits that Jabbed has been particularly difficult, because of criticism from both sides.

“I have never claimed to be unbiased ... quite the contrary. I am very clear that I am biased in support of vaccination."

“A young man came up to me [at a forum about the documentary] and said, ‘I think you’re a hypocrite’ and I asked ‘why?’. He said ‘because you claim you’re unbiased’.” She shakes her head. “I have never claimed to be unbiased in any interview or documentary ever, quite the contrary. I am very clear that I am biased in support of vaccination, that I grew up in a medical family. I acknowledge my biases and work very hard to overcome them, to see beyond them,” she says. Overcoming them involves talking to alternative health practitioners and, controversially, finding case studies that illustrate adverse reactions to vaccination. It was this move that attracted criticism from medical circles, as Jabbed is the first documentary in support of vaccination to acknowledge and address the negatives.

“I was getting messages saying you’ll scare people and could cause a downturn in vaccination use, and others saying ‘we need to talk about this’.” After the documentary went to air, some health workers told her enquiries about vaccination had leapt and in some cases there were queues round the block.

Finding adverse reaction stories that stood up to scrutiny was hard, she explains, because the overwhelming majority turned out to be due to causes other than the vaccine. Luke Philbin, aged six, developed seizures and ended up with permanent brain damage, initially triggered by a fever brought on after his routine six-month vaccinations. As the program reveals, however, gene testing established that he had Dravet Syndrome, a severe and chronic form of epilepsy. The fever sparked the first seizure, but did not cause his condition.

Another participant, David Salamone, contracted polio from an oral vaccine administered in the early 1990s, which contained a weakened but live form of the virus. After a campaign spearheaded by his parents, the US (and Australia) now uses a dead, injectable form of the virus. But it turns out there was a reason the weakened virus singled him out: David had a malfunctioning immune system.

Other case studies show the grave dangers of not vaccinating as once rare diseases are returning: an adult with measles, a baby with whooping cough (contracted a week before his first inoculation) and, most tragically, a girl called Abigail Peterson from Minnesota who died from pneumococcal disease, a condition her GP didn’t feel she needed inoculation against. It turned out she too had a rare immune disorder.

As well as filming additional material and recutting Jabbed for an American audience (where vaccine programs are compulsory but where non-compliance is greater than in Australia), Pemberton is at work on a host of new shows. These include a documentary on autism, another on breast cancer and a series on nuclear power – hot-button topics for our time. There’s also a series called Tales of the Unexpected for SBS in collaboration with Mythbusters’ creator, Peter Rees.

Although she always insists on being “the boss” on the films, she acknowledges the crucial role played by others. “Sometimes, as a storyteller, the bit you want to be true just isn’t true; I work with very sensible, methodical, quiet experts whose job it is to keep me factually honest,” she says.

“My films and I are both about the fact that being emotional and rational can co-exist; in a nutshell, that’s what everything I do is about.”

Fiona Gruber is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.
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