Finding an avenue for telling a story is a delicate dance. How to convey complex ideas clearly but still make them tangible and personal. How to paint a scene stocked with detail so the audience feels instantly immersed. How to evoke an emotional connection even if your subject might seem dull or hard to grasp. Documentary filmmaking offers a powerful alternative to print or audio for storytelling but might go overlooked by science journalists. By activating the senses, bringing the audience face-to-face with living, breathing characters, and artfully blending visual imagery with sound, this medium can be especially engaging at a visceral level.
For journalists making their first foray into filmmaking, the process might seem daunting. Crafting a documentary comes with a learning curve—and requires more investment and equipment than the typical text-based assignment. But it’s not entirely different from writing a story for print or audio. “Science journalists have the skills to direct and produce films,” says California-based science journalist and filmmaker Annie Roth. “They can find stories, they can find sources, they can write interview questions, they can craft the story’s narrative.”
Filmmaking is seldom a solo endeavor. These projects often involve a small army of professionals, including producers, videographers, editors, animators, and many others whose expertise reporters can rely on and learn from. “Film is a collaboration, almost always,” says wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn. This collective approach also invites journalists to involve local collaborators in the community they’re covering, providing a safeguard against parachute journalism.
Here are five examples of films that showcase the versatility and value of documentary filmmaking for telling science stories. The filmmakers each weigh in on the unique challenges their films posed and how they overcame them to bring their films to fruition. (Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.)
In this award-winning 2022 documentary short, co-director Roth wades into a rural Pennsylvania community’s battle to ban fracking injection wells in their township. There, a proposed well would deposit hazardous waste into the ground, contaminating the only source of clean drinking water for the 700 residents of Grant Township. It would also destroy the local ecosystem of the eastern hellbender salamander, the largest salamander species in North America, whose population has been steadily declining. This elusive creature, though it measures as long as a small otter, lives tucked under river rocks and depends on clean water to survive. Roth’s film, produced by Wild Lens Collective and Running Wild Media, chronicles the ardent fight of a scrappy grassroots organization to protect the hellbender’s habitat and a community’s access to unpolluted water. The group rallies against major energy companies—and the Environmental Protection Agency itself—to pass the nation’s first local law protecting the rights of an ecosystem to exist undisturbed.
A Mother’s Brain
London-based science journalist Melissa Hogenboom was inspired by her own experience of motherhood to film this 2021 BBC Reel documentary series on how pregnancy and early parenthood reshapes both brain and identity. The three-part Webby Award–winning series illustrates the inescapably immersive experience of becoming a parent, symbolized by haunting scenes of Hogenboom herself plunging into a pool of water, sinking into its darkness. Hogenboom’s reporting shines a light on the gaps in scientists’ understanding of this vulnerable life stage. Hormonal shifts and boosts in brain size, for example, biologically prime parents to care for their children, but these changes come at the cost of heightened emotional intensity and propensity to stress. A lack of social supports such as paid parental leave and universal childcare in countries like the U.S. adds to the load of new parenthood. Seeking solutions, Hogenboom features the work of scientists who are trying to correct these oversights.
This 2020 Netflix original documentary follows the heart-wrenching story of two Thai scientists who had their two-year-old daughter cryogenically frozen after she died from brain cancer. The film, produced by Bangkok-based 2050 Productions, depicts a beautiful dichotomy: A family grieving the loss of their beloved daughter, Einz, and simultaneously holding on to hope that future scientific advancements might one day revive her. Director, journalist, and 2050 founder Pailin Wedel gives viewers an intimate look at Einz’s family through home videos showing her bursting with life and joy paired with painful shots of her parents and brother visiting the facility where her preserved remains reside. Through this personal approach, Wedel infuses emotional depth and nuance into an otherwise controversial issue. At the same time, the International Emmy–winning film confronts the scientific and ethical obstacles surrounding cryonics. Einz’s family wrestles with unanswered questions in both science and faith, inviting the audience to do the same.
My Garden of a Thousand Bees
Faced with the lockdowns of the early COVID-19 pandemic, Dohrn set up shop in his own backyard in Bristol, England. The resulting 2021 PBS documentary captures in stunning detail more than 60 wild bee species buzzing around his overgrown garden, where he says he’s “let some of the wild back in.” To film these busy insects, Dohrn had to rejigger his camera lenses, allowing him to slow down time and focus on every flutter and flap. This slow-motion filming technique transforms his garden into an otherworldly landscape, inhabited by countless creatures and Dohrn himself, a friendly giant. Over months of painstaking recording, he peers into the daily bustle of bees, showing the dynamics of different species as they sniff out flowers, court mates, and ward off predators. It becomes clear that even individual bees, such as the diligent, creative leafcutter bee Dohrn affectionately calls Nicky, have distinct quirks and personalities. Through detailed glimpses into the once secret lives of bees, the award-winning film, produced by PBS’s Nature, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, and others, inspires a sense of awe and undeniable connection with these creatures upon whom so much of our agriculture depends.
All That Breathes
In this 2022 HBO documentary feature, New Delhi–based director Shaunak Sen follows the tireless efforts of two brothers to protect local wildlife amidst skyrocketing air pollution and social unrest in the city. Working out of a makeshift bird hospital in their basement, the brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, rehabilitate birds of all kinds. But they share a particular affinity for the black kite, a bird of prey resembling “a furious reptile from another planet.” Black kites, known for soaring effortlessly through the sky, are instead falling to the ground, sickened by the smog. Throughout the Oscar-nominated film, produced by Rise Films, HHMI Tangled Bank Studies, and others, Sen captures intimate moments of the brothers’ tender care for the fearsome black kites and their other feathered patients. This painstaking work, against the odds of increasingly violent political protests and almost no funding for their rescue mission, becomes a form of resistance against the deteriorating state of their city. Their driving force: A resolute belief that every creature, all that breathes, has a right to live.
Purple Romero is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong. She has written about climate change, health, and biodiversity for SciDev.Net, Climate Home, Reuters Alertnet, Mongabay, and Science for the People, among others. She also does film reviews and writes film essays, with her articles published in Asian Movie Pulse, High on Films, and U.K.-based publications Little White Lies and The New Voice. Follow her on Twitter @purpleromeropo.