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Vol. LIX, No. 19
September 21, 2007

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NIH's Summer Blockbusters
Behind the Scenes at 'Science in the Cinema'

On the front page...

This may come as a surprise, but the Office of Science Education's Science in the Cinema film series is now in its 14th year. Starting quietly in 1994 with The Story of Louis Pasteur, the festival- which combines screenings of medical science-related films with expert-led discussions- has evolved into a summer event, providing its public audiences with the rare opportunity to hear firsthand from scientists about health issues portrayed in popular culture.

According to Debra Knorr, Science in the Cinema program manager, it all started when OSE director Dr. Bruce Fuchs heard about a brown-bag lunch series at a research institute where graduate students watched films related to mental health, then discussed them. "When he became director of this office, he decided to start up a program that included all types of health and medical science issues, and was open to the public," Knorr says.


  Following a screening of<em>The Lost Weekend</em> during the Science in the Cinema festival, Dr. Mark Willenbring of NIAAA discussed the film's portrayal of alcoholism.  
  Following a screening ofThe Lost Weekend during the Science in the Cinema festival, Dr. Mark Willenbring of NIAAA discussed the film's portrayal of alcoholism.  
Each year, an internal committee starts meeting
in January to begin researching films. They look for films with diverse subject matter, and try to find at least one "classic," as well as newer works. More importantly, they look for films that will inspire dynamic discussions. "You'll get a question specifically related to the film, or to the state of the art of the medical research, or a personal health question," says Knorr. In some years, when they've shown a film based on a "true story," they've even had people portrayed in the films sitting in the audience.

So how did the program fare this year? Knorr recently answered questions on this summer's series for the Record.

How successful was this year's season?
The [OSE] is extremely pleased with the turnout and level of audience participation in the post-film discussions...This year represented a record turnout. In most instances, the theater was filled to capacity.

How would you compare it to other years?
We have clearly gained a loyal following at the AFI Silver Theatre. Judging from the breadth and depth of questions, it is apparent that we're attracting an audience that has a deep desire to further their understanding of specific medical and health-related issues.

What were the most popular films?
I can't point to one film that I would say was more popular than another. However, I do think...a certain percentage of people attending films did so because of a personal interest in the medical science theme depicted in that evening's film. Based on questions, many people obviously had a personal interest in the topic presented that evening because of their own medical history or that of a friend or loved one.

For the 2005 Spanish-language film Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the Clinical Center’s department of clinical bioethics, led a discussion on “dying with dignity.”
For the 2005 Spanish-language film Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the Clinical Center’s department of clinical bioethics, led a discussion on “dying with dignity.”

Can you tell us about some of the discussions?
After the 2006 film Half Nelson, Dr. Donald Vereen, medical officer and special assistant to the director, NIDA, led an engaging discussion on the neurobiology of addiction...For The Lost Weekend, Dr. Mark Willenbring, director of the Treatment and Recovery Research Division, NIAAA, discussed the fact that even though the film was produced in 1945, it remains an incredibly accurate portrayal of alcoholism.

With Rory O'Shea Was Here (2004), Dr. John Porter, program director, neuromuscular disease channels, synapses, and circuits cluster, NINDS, focused on Duchenne muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy, the diseases that afflicted the two main characters...The 2005 film, Mozart and the Whale, discussed by Dr. Ann Wagner, chief, Neurodevelopmental Disorders Branch, NIMH, prompted intense questioning.

A number of participants had friends or relatives with Asperger's syndrome so their interest was palpably personal. In one case a woman discussed her spouse, whose Asperger's went undiagnosed for 18 years.

For the 2005 Spanish-language film, Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair, department of clinical bioethics, led a discussion about the ethical and legal issues surrounding the topic of "death with dignity"... And with the 2001 film, On the Edge, Dr. Donald Rosenstein, chief, Psychiatry Consultation-Liaison Service, NIMH, discussed suicide prevention and therapeutic intervention strategies.

How did this season influence what you plan to do for next year?
We have just completed our 14th year of the series. Consequently, it takes a great deal of research and review to find quality science and health-related films that have not been screened previously. As much as possible, we also like to select topics that represent a range of NIH institute and center experts. For example, we were able to draw from scientists at NIMH, NIAAA, NINDS, NIDA and the CC for the 2007 series. Other factors are the quality, duration and age of the film. The series has always been limited to feature films, as opposed to documentaries. We also need to find films that screen in less than 2 hours, as it would be difficult to ask the attendees to sit through a film of great length and the subsequent discussion at the end of a long day.

What kind of feedback have you received for this year's series?
People watch films all the time and in most cases, they probably come away with the same types of questions that are raised by attendees of the film series. In the "real world," there is generally no authoritative source for these people to turn to in seeking answers. We are continually told by attendees that they have never met a professional scientist and that they are eager to learn from and interact directly with the experts in the scientific community.

Were there any surprises this year?
I think the 2007 film festival is an excellent example of how the scientific community is becoming increasingly adept at engaging the public in scientific dialogue. Our lineup of experts this year was extremely effective at communicating the importance, complexity, excitement and hope embodied in their respective areas of medical research to a diverse public audience." NIH Record Icon

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