Screen chemistry: scientists and Doc|Fest

Leah Fitzsimmons is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Birmingham who works on the role of viruses in cancer. Supported by Wellcome, she went to this year's Sheffield Doc|Fest.

Fade in: Cutlers' Hall, Sheffield, night-time...

The hall is thronged with a crowd of people, laughing and dancing, chatting animatedly, some engaged in intent conversation. It's the after-party for the UK premiere of 'Where to Invade Next'.

James: So you're a scientist who's here with the Wellcome Trust? But what for?

Leah: Well, Wellcome sponsors the festival so they invited biomedical researchers to come along and get involved. You know, start conversations, have ideas…

James: They brought you here to get ideas?

(Pause, Leah nods and sips nervously at her plastic cup.)

James: Well that is the absolute coolest thing I ever heard.

Forgive the corny opening, but as well as being (nearly!) true and hard to resist when writing about a film festival, I also think my 'treatment’ reflects one of the most inspiring things I took away from attending Doc|Fest. 

James, it transpired, was James Demo, award-winning writer and director of 'The Peacemaker'. We went on to discuss the weather (biblical rain), and how audiences often seem to respond to films with a kind of 'hive mind', even in a darkened theatre. It was only when people began to approach him for autographs that I realised James might be quite a big name in documentary making.

Despite being vastly more knowledgeable than me about film, James listened to what I had to say. And the same was true of everyone else I met, whatever the subject. It made me wonder, would a filmmaker have the same experience at a scientific conference? 

I'm not suggesting that all opinions are created equal, regardless of evidence, but does the more rigid hierarchy in science sometimes make us miss brilliant ideas? 

Inspiring ideas for science

'Presenting Princess Shaw' was the story of care assistant Samantha Montgomery (AKA Princess Shaw) and modern composer Kutiman (Ophir Kutiel). 

Kutiman, who uses short excepts of YouTube videos to compose entirely new pieces, combined Samantha's acapella vocals with a mashup of other YouTube material, to create an original album. Princess Shaw knew nothing of her stardom until Kutiman invited her from her home in New Orleans to Tel Aviv to sing to her adoring fans. 

What would happen if there was a scientific YouTube for clips of data – full of those experimental snippets that never quite make sense on their own? Perhaps it would allow us to find unlikely collaborators and the missing links that could ultimately turn these forgotten fragments of data into useful knowledge.

Another topical theme – relevant to the arts and sciences – was accessibility. We live in an era where all forms of content are expected to be both immediate and easy to access, but also high quality, media rich and immersive. 

In the Virtual Reality Arcade, I experienced walking into a US abortion clinic past angry protesters in 'Across the Line'. Then through 'In My Shoes: Dancing with Myself', I briefly became Jane who has random epileptic fits. 

These pieces made me think about how we might use new immersive technologies to accelerate and focus research. The benefits could be two-fold: allowing scientists to better understand a problem and the public to better engage with science. 

Ones to watch

And for my own unexpected collaboration, check out this clip about herpes viruses following a chance meeting with a 'Very Loose podcaster.

As you can tell, I found Doc|Fest a thought-provoking feast of ideas. I’ll definitely be going back in 2017.

Wellcome and Doc|Fest

As part of our support for Sheffield International Documentary Festival, the Wellcome Networking Programme funded five researchers with a PhD in biomedical sciences to go to the festival in June 2016. Researchers networked with film makers and broadcast commissioners, and watched some of the world’s finest documentary films.