Five Questions for Filmmakers: My Love Affair with the Brain - The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond
Answers provided by Gary Weimberg, Co-Director and Co-Producer
What inspired this story?
GW: Evidence based good news. We wanted to make a film that was different, not another film about dangers in the environment, or emerging pathological problems, or even injustices that needed to be corrected. We had done films on all of those and wanted to cheer ourselves up … and the audience. But not with false hopes, nor with ostrich head-in-the-sand essays. We wanted … Evidence based good news.
The science of Dr. Marian Diamond is exactly that. Her work was always about the capacity of the brain, the capabilities of the brain, the miraculous form and function of the brain … within a solid scientific context. The prime example, her research establishing brain plasticity. It was her work that, for the first time, measured precise anatomical changes associated with plasticity in rat brains, pioneering research that decisively transformed neural plasticity from a controversial speculative idea to a measurable, indisputable, observable function and core ability of the brain. Her battle for the acceptance of plasticity was hard fought but by now, nearly universally accepted. Her research marked a profound paradigm shift in science, in our understanding of the brain and thus … in our understanding of ourselves.
Describe some of the challenges faced while making this film?
GW: We thought this would be an easy charming film, far from the controversial topics we had previously made films about. We thought … what could be controversial about science … and then the war on science began, led by the climate change deniers. We thought … what could be controversial about a charming gracious elderly woman … and then the war on women broke out with renewed fanaticism and fervor.
How do you approach science storytelling?
We wanted to tell a HUMAN science story. The fallacy implicit in coverage of state-of-the-art, bleeding edge, breakthrough science is that it that science is presented as one break thru after another, an endless forward march. But in fact, the general public often just becomes confused as the waves of advances first suggest that coffee is good for you, then that it is bad for you, then that it is good for you again. Overall, science storytelling is FAILING to convince the general public that science can and should be trusted. The power of the climate change deniers is brutally vivid illustration of this failure.
Our choice was to approach science storytelling as a HUMAN story. Our approach was biographical, knowing that this allows the audience a ready and easy entry point.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
Firstly, Dr. Diamond was a neglected, under-reported scientific hero when we began this film. After the broadcast, and after her passing away within a few months after the films premiere, in obituary after obituary around the world, she was recognized as “one of the founders of modern neuroscience.” In large part, this is directly because of the attention the film inspired for the wonderful life’s work of this wonderful scientist. We trust that this film, and the honor of awards like these, will allow her legacy to be as it should be, a known and appreciated bright light in the history of great scientists, especially great women scientists.
Secondly, we wanted to raise up a profoundly engaging and inspirational story of a role model in science. Someone whose life and work would make ANY viewer think, “I could spend my life doing that…” but especially, a film that would inspire women and girls in STEM. We already have had screenings for incredibly diverse female audiences, including Girl Scout troup 420 who not only watched the film, but created a “Marian Diamond Neuroscience Merit Badge.” Dr Diamond demonstrated by her very life that one answer to gender based oppression is a life well lived, that the gender inequalities Dr. Diamond faced can be effectively challenged and even disassembled simply by pointing out what she did … and allow the world changing work to speak for itself.
Were there any surprising or meaningful moments/experiences you want to share?
From shoot day 1 to Emmy nomination notice day was 8 years. Over that time Dr. Diamond and her husband Dr. Arnie Schiebel transformed first into documentary subjects, then into our good friend, and before the end they became our best friends, whose company we sought out and deeply enjoyed on every level.
We were their final students, returning again and again to their home with questions and confustion, to review the film and the scientific concpets for accuracy and effective communications. They became true members of our team, our scientific co-filmmakers. And thru all that … we laughed. Such conversations we had! What an honor to engage so deeply with two wise elders who had traveled the world seeking ever more knowledge about the brain, both to learn and to dissiminate.
As we filmed, they retired from teaching and moved into the senior housing. We completed the film in a race against mortality, knowing that both of them were increasingly frail. It was our most profound wish to NOT need to film at a funeral, to NOT need to close the film with an obituary.
We accomplished that, in a timely enough manner that although they are not alive today to enjoy this honor, they did enjoy a full year of film festivals and awards and the joy of the broadcast on PBS stations across the US. So very pleased to have accomplished that for our dear, dear friends.
Why did you pick to be the on-camera host telling this story?
If ever there was an appropriate ambassador for science, it is Dr. Marian Diamond. A beloved
professor whose classes on human anatomy at UC Berkeley were legendarily popular, the most
popular on campus, she also was described by the NYTIMES in 2010 as the second most popular
college professor in the world, based on the millions of views of her YouTube anatomy lecture
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.