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Decoding Immortality and Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

October 15, 2012

An Interview with Science Television Creator Sonya Pemberton.

The Australian Special Broadcasting Service documentary Immortal, written and directed by Sonya Pemberton, has recently won an International News and Documentary Emmy Award in the Outstanding Science and Technology Programming category. Immortal was retitled Decoding Immortality for American audiences and broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel.

Immortal is a film that follows the work of Nobel Prize-winning Australian scientist Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, whose team in 1984 discovered an enzyme deep in the DNA of a single-celled pond creature tetrahymena, leading to studies on the synthesis and function of telomeres. As a result, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2009. The film investigates the inner workings of Professor Blackburn’s studies and the implications it has on ageing, disease and cancer.

On her production company’s website, Pemberton describes her next film Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines:

“Diseases that were largely eradicated forty years ago are returning. Across the world children are dying from preventable conditions because nervous parents are skipping their baby’s shots. And yet the stories of vaccine injury are terrifying, with rare cases of people being hurt, even killed, by vaccines. To vaccinate or not— how do we decide?”

Interviews have been conducted worldwide, from Bhutan to Brisbane, Marseille to Minnesota—including interviews with the likes of Paul A. Offit, MD and the stories of families whose lives are irrevocably altered by the politics of immunization.

I spoke to Sonya at the Australian Science Communicators National Convention, held earlier this year in Sydney, after she presented on a panel called “What’s The Buzz: What’s New in Science Television.”

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Sonya Pemberton

Sonya Pemberton: I am a documentary filmmaker who’s made about fifty hours of TV that I've written and directed. A lot more than that that I've either executive produced or co‑produced or commissioned; I’ve probably done seven hundred hours of television content altogether. But my passion is science and I focus as much as I can on science filmmaking. Sometimes I do films that don't look like science films but underneath they are.

A lot of thought goes into the evidence behind a story; an example of that is one we did a few years ago [on television] with Andrew Denton called Angels and Demons, about mental illness.

That was really funny because a lot of people, even Andrew, said “Well that wasn't a science film,” and I'm going “Yes, it was,” Because I had two researchers on it who only had three weeks notice before we decided to film, and we shot it all in four days. It was a fast turnaround film.

But we did a tremendous amount of research in understanding various mental illnesses and different conditions so that when we were there filming, I had my researcher beside me the whole time, feeding me information about bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder. I could remember the details of what we were doing and prompt Andrew in the right ways.

That made it like a social documentary, but actually underneath that is a science documentary. That's how I like to work.

Kylie Sturgess: Do you come from a scientific background?

Sonya: I come from a scientific family; my grandfather was Professor John Pemberton— he died last year at ninety-eight—but he was the man who started epidemiology in Britain and worked with all the great epidemiologists. He started the “International Journal of Epidemiology.” I grew up with his influence being very powerful in my life. My father is a medical doctor, a neonatologist, and very senior in that field. A lot of the family is medically oriented. I originally went to study medicine but didn't. I got sidetracked very quickly in the first year by film and television.

Kylie: How does making a TV series or TV documentaries differ from making a full length documentary, one that might end up in cinemas?

Sonya: That's interesting. Well, there are so many layers to telling science stories. The first thing is whether your science story warrants a two‑minute piece, a five-minute piece, a ten-minute piece, a one-hour piece, etc. Everybody starts off thinking they have at least an hour! Whether it's algae, bats, hummingbirds, or whatever your particular passion is, you initially think everybody wants to hear an hour!

Usually, the average story you read in a newspaper is quite short and can be told in a matter of minutes, which is why the Australian ABC TV show “Catalyst” serves a very vital function doing those short form kinds of investigations. I used to be the executive producer of “Catalyst” and then the manager of the science unit at the ABC. Making that distinction on what is a four-minute, seven-minute, half-hour, one-hour, or ninety-minute story is critical.

These days, I focus on what we call long-form science documentary, which is one hour or longer. I focus on global stories, that being said, I look for Australian science as much as possible. It has to translate into the international market.

I say “market” quite deliberately because it is a marketplace. The reality of funding is usually that you cannot make a film of big international reach and scope without having money from multiple countries.

Kylie: Was that something you learned quite early on when you first started?

Sonya: No! If I went by the clock I went from university to working for Channel Seven as a news editor—and a junior news editor at that! I used to direct video clips—Hunters and Collectors was one of my first clips—and I also did the music video for Talking to a Stranger! That was my first little film. I'm very proud of that still!

When you look at it now, you go “It's so primitive!” But we're talking twenty-odd years ago. Then I worked in drama for years; I became an assistant director, I worked on drama series, drama shows, and feature films. That was interesting, because I thought I wanted to be a drama director. I made short films and things like that. I won some pretty good awards when I was nineteen. I got written up in the local press newspapers for a while.

Kylie: The documentary Immortal—how did you come to choose Elizabeth Blackburn's story?

Sonya: I have two people to thank for that one: I have Dr. Allen Finkel, Chancellor at Monash and a veritable brain wizard, and Robin Williams, of The Science Show at the ABC. Like most people who are into science, I have millions of Google alerts—I follow journals and stories all over the place. I noticed something on telomere biology back in 2003 or 2004.

I was sitting in the ABC cafeteria with Robin Williams and saying “This Elizabeth Blackburn…” and Robin was saying “Oh, I've interviewed her. She's marvelous. She's marvelous!”

Later, I was talking to Allen Finkel; he was also saying how amazing she was. I really honed in and started paying attention and I couldn't believe it. Then it was 2005, and I'm going “A scientist from Tasmania looks into tiny little pond scum creatures and discovers the key to life and death in terms of the genome. Not only has she worked out what it does, how it does it, but how to turn it on and off in these tiny little creatures or in the laboratory.” The implications were so profound.

When I did a bit more research, I realized it had been hyped at beyond belief during the 1980s and early 1990s to the point where it had become invisible again. That mixture of an extraordinary idea; twenty years of research; a female scientist; an Australian scientist —pondering the far reaches of the genome where nobody else wanted to go because it looked boring and dull. She just kept going, because she was tenacious and curious. I loved the way she was so focused.

I flew myself to San Francisco. When I set up I didn't actually have funding, I didn't have any investment. I just decided that I would go find her. I tried to have a meeting with her and she wasn't interested. She didn't answer my emails. She didn't want to talk to me. It turned out that she'd been made one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential thinkers. She didn't want any more media attention. It took me two years of virtually stalking her and finding everything I could to get her to talk to me because I just wanted to make this film!

I tried to convince funding buddies. Nobody wanted to do it. Who is this woman? What has she done? Who cares about telomeres? What do they matter? Genetics? Come on! Crick and Watson, that's kind of the story, isn't it? I just kept going. I kept going and I remember Allen Finkel was fantastic. I rang him and I said “I hear Liz Blackburn is coming to town next week as a guest of Monash. I hear you're having dinner with her.” He put in a good word and the next morning I got a phone call saying that she would talk to me.

It was funny. I went to meet with her. I read every single journal article, like studying for an exam. I'm finally going to get to talk to her! As soon as I walked in the room she said, “Well, I'll assume you know everything there is to know about me. I want to know about you,”

She grilled me and at the end of about twenty minutes she said, “If you still want to make this film let's proceed.”

Kylie: Great!

Sonya: Luckily, we started filming about eight months before she won the Nobel Prize! I didn't have any money at that point but we were filming anyway. Then she won the Nobel Prize and they gave us money… If any funding buddy is listening out there, whenever I say, “I think they're going to win the Nobel Prize,” I've got three out of five right. It's now three out of six!

When you’re asking government bodies and financial institutions to invest in a film idea, often, they want to do the right thing and get science on television, but they can't always tell which stories are going to be the ones that resonate. I feel really glad that we made the story with Liz Blackburn because she allowed it to be open and warm. She relaxed and we didn't have to call her Professor Blackburn. In the whole film we called her Liz, which Americans find really interesting. We told the story in a deceptively light way. That was the real trick of that film, because it was molecular biology at quite a complex level. In telomere biology there are all sorts of gray areas, of course. Distilling that into some sort of bite-sized, palatable pieces that people wanted to travel with was the difficult part.

We've been lucky. We've won about sixteen international awards for it; it's sold into many, many territories. It's screening regularly all over the world. It's been translated into, so far, about eight different languages and we must have had about twenty million viewers by now. So that's pretty cool!

Kylie: That's pretty cool, yes!

Sonya: I'm pretty happy with that. When I just think that I wanted to get this curious story about a Tasmanian who went on to do amazing things. And a woman to boot; I feel somewhat vindicated that we got that story out.

Kylie: Yes. You say, “…and a woman to boot.” Do you think it's difficult for women to be heard?

Sonya: It's difficult in my world of television to find female scientific voices that work for an audience. It's no accident that the majority of science programming is dominated by males. This is just me and pop psychology, but it's partly to do with the fact that those we see as authority figures are often male. There are obviously exceptions, but I fight for those exceptions.

In my current film I am seeking female voices, as usual. I get a thrill when I see women doing amazing stuff in science. Given a lifetime over again I'd be a jazz-singing scientist! I'm trying to live vicariously through what they do and how they work and how they think and feel.

And Liz Blackburn, after finding out that she got pregnant—this is not in the film, but she got pregnant just after she was made Head of Lab in a very male dominated field of microbiology—managed to juggle having a child and being Head of Lab and making these amazing discoveries. You just think “That's a big task.” It's an amazing journey she's been on.

Kylie: Your next production, Jabbed, you've said that you have been seeking out voices to add to the investigation of vaccination claims?

Sonya Pemberton: Yeah. Well, it is not an investigation of anti‑vaccination. I should be really clear. I started out last year thinking I was going to do that, because I got quite a lot of hate mail, I guess you would call it, or nasty emails after I made a film in 2009, called Catching Cancer with Ian Frazer and Professor Harold zur Hausen, Barry Marshall and lots of others, about infections causing cancer. The message behind that film was perhaps that we have taken our eye off that particular cause of cancer. We have got so fixated on the genetics that we have forgotten about infections. That film was nine years in the making and the other was only five!

Along the way, it tells the story of the cervical cancer vaccine, as an example of the fact once you discover a cancer is caused by an infection, this is extremely good news. Then you can interfere with that process. A good way of doing that is to prevent it. Vaccines can do that. I was completely unprepared for the mail that I got attacking me for “doing damage,” even though some of it was very nicely worded. Of course, some of it was not. It just made me realize that I knew there was controversy over the vaccine—of course I did know that, I had done a lot of research into it—but, I didn't expect it to get personal. When that happened, it just made me interested.

Kylie: That is a good response—to say, “OK. Why?”

Sonya: Yes, “Well, what's going on?” Then, talking to some people all over the world, I realized they have drawers full of hate mail and worse.

Rather than just feel like I want to attack people, although there was part of me that did get angry and feel offended, I realized that they must be very driven people. I have spent a year of my life thinking very carefully about this issue now and listening to the people, who are frightened and maybe not even frightened. They’re just concerned or don't know who to believe and don't know which way to turn. I have spent a year talking to people on street corners, at bus stops in Paris, Germany, London, America, and across Australia, all over the world, asking people what they think about vaccinations.

I am discovering—particularly in the younger age group, under forty, but even more specifically, under thirty, but definitely in the twenty to forty year age group—there is a lot of doubt and about not just vaccination. But about science and its ability to communicate what it is doing. People don't fully trust authority.

I spent a lot of time really listening to it. I actually put my head under the sand for little while. I felt like I wanted to give up and run away. This is too hard. I thought it was just going to make a film about the science. But I have realized that the science is only part of the story.

The real story going on here is how people feel and how people think and how people think they think. You have to watch the film to work out how I get there. But I am trying very hard not to have balance, because that's a false concept. I have made enough films that I don't think balance is quite the right word. I'm going to piss off both sides actually!

Kylie: Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Sonya: No, it's not. I don't think I will piss anybody off that badly, to be honest! People will realize what I'm trying to do—can I succeed in having a communication that says, “You know what? This is not as polarized as we think. It's not.” The us-and-them mentality is not doing any of us any good really. It is counterproductive. Demonizing and ridiculing people is counterproductive. When there are genuine concerns and people hurting and scary stories and conflicting information, personally my job as a science communicator is to try and improve the situation if I can. I might not be able to, but if I can.

That's quite deep and meaningful. But I do feel that I have made enough films now that I know films can reach large numbers of people. They can be nothing, but just sit on the couch one night—and they are gone. Just like that.

Or, they can get out into the ether and they can start conversations and they can circulate and they can be seen multiple times and they can start discussions—I am hoping that Jabbed will do that. I am really grateful to the families, who have offered their stories. Because the families come from those who have experienced the diseases that the vaccines could have prevented, but for various reasons didn't. The stories also come from those very rare individuals, who have genuine vaccine injuries and vaccine reactions. I personally make a distinction between those two.

I am hoping that, for those that just don't know which way is up, it might help a little.

The full interview with Sonya Pemberton features at Token Skeptic, Episode #111.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.