The conflict between the religious right and science — about the origin of life — has garnered a spotlight in liberal Manhattan with the Tribeca Film Festival screening of writer/director Randy Olson‘s “The Flock of Dodos” playing in the fest’s Discovery section. Utilizing an entertaining and unacademic angle — this is not your high school biology class film — the film aims for the style of Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” or a Michael Moore film to try to make science interesting. Olson, an evolutionary ecologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, tackles the current debate in the United States over intelligent design and looks at its place in science and in the classroom.
“This film is a manifestation of my opinions developed over the years,” explained Olson, who studied film at USC in the mid-90s after discovering that he enjoyed using the medium when making slide shows and later video projects on oceanography expeditions. After a screening Tuesday he said, “My feeling is when [one makes] a boring [scientific] documentary, it does the [subject] a disservice.”
Using the historicallly criticized Do-do bird as a humorous on-screen reference, Olson asks, “who indeed are the do-dos?” The intelligent design crowd who have successfully promoted the idea of a higher being that guides how life exists today? Or are they the scientific community, which has thwarted opportunities to successfully communicate their science to the masses?
Olson, who, as an evolutionist is squarely on the side of Darwin, clearly favors the established scientific explanations for how life began, exists today, and continues to change. He does, however, present many on-screen interviews with leading intelligent designers, both on the academic side as well as on the political, including colleagues from his own scientific community. And the film seems to argue that aside from their opposing sides of the debate, another thing separates the groups: likability.
Throughout the film, Olson discusses principles of intelligent design with the movement’s leading figures from both academia and the political front and accepts certain arguments but discredits others with flare. For example, the normally dry and boring subject as Haeckle’s discredited 19th century drawings of embryos, often used by intelligent designers to discredit Darwinists. Olson also finds the intelligent design group much more adept than many traditional academics in winning the public relations part of the war simply because of their affability. Conversely, he readily exposes his fellow academic colleague whose personalities may be a turn off for most people in non-scientific society.
Olson, a Kansas native, traveled to his home state which becomes a focal point of the film. It was there that the evolution debate began in the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 and was also addressed much later in 1999 when the Kansas School Board attempted to teach both creationism and evolution in science class. Last year, he heard about the current debate in the state about intelligent design and decided to make the film.
“There were an intersection of three or four controversial issues,” he said after screening of his film Tuesday. As a Kansas native and a committed evolutionist he was moved to explore the topic. His mother, who still lives in the state and offers comical asides throughout the documentary, had been sending Olson newspaper clippings about intelligent design and one of its prominent proponents happened to be a neighbor from his hometown.
Executive producer Steven Miller, who became interested in the project and raised money for the film explained his interest in Olson’s concept during the discussion Tuesday. “Scientists are good at arguing, but [have] difficulty in reaching a larger audience.” Both agree that academic docs may be thorough, but may lose their effectiveness by coming off as rather dry. “It’s really about entertainment. Conventional documentaries on PBS don’t reach a large audience. So there needs to be a potential to reach out to a large audience by [a means other] than just an argument.” Added Olson, “So many science docs don’t have the underpinnings of watchable storytelling.”
Olson said that many of his colleagues simply dismissed the intelligent designers out of hand because their arguments did not subscribe to the scientific principles traditionally used, giving the former an invitation to create a national debate. “[Scientists] argued to just let it go away, ignore it, and it will fall on its own merits. But then intelligent design appeared on the cover of Time Magazine…This is a problem of the scientific community. They’re being attacked and the only way they react to it is to form a committee.”
The intelligent design community, the film argues, has think tanks and big money to promote their viewpoint, including the cash flushed conservative Seattle-based think tank Discovery Institute, which has funded both a public relations effort as well as legal challenges in states including Kansas where opposition to evolution is rife. Olson views his film as an entertaining counter-assault on evolution and hopes it will find a large audience (he has traveled with the film to several universities as well as Kansas for a series of popular pre-Tribeca premiere screenings).
Looking ahead to this autumn’s midterm U.S. elections, Olson hopes the film may find a place in the nation’s dialogue. “I think [issues of] church and state will really be a part of the discussion this fall. And I see how this film fits in.”
ABOUT THE WRITER: Brian Brooks is the Associate Editor of indieWIRE.
[indieWIRE is publishing daily dispatches and iPOP photos from the Tribeca Film Festival in a special section.]