Interview with filmmaker Juliette Martineau
Juliette Martineau is the director Lifespan (2020): the short film she made when she graduated from the National Film and Television School in the United Kingdom. The documentary takes a very personal approach to the science of aging by studying animals that do not age in the same way as humans. These incredible organisms could be the key to slowing our aging process or even to eternal life! Now it’s our turn to take a closer look at the creator of this great short film…
You have an honours bachelor degree of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Toronto and are also a graduate of the National Film and TV School in London. Did you, with this background, specifically intend to study film to make documentaries about science or even biology?
Yes, that was the exact reasoning. I did some research in my last bachelor year and I liked it, but I realized that the part I liked the most was reading other people’s work and telling others about it. So I just wanted to do the communicative aspect of it. I found the two-year master’s program at the NFTS called “Directing and Producing Science and Natural History”. I thought, “This is for me.” You would be doing everything: research, directing, filming, editing, the whole package. I also enjoyed the movie part, which I hadn’t realized before because I was so focused on science. So it was great doing both at the same time. Interest in science and nature documentaries seems to be booming, especially on streaming platforms. I don’t know why. Maybe because the outside world is getting depressing so this is something nice to look at.
Do you want to continue in this field?
Yeah. I graduated in February: two weeks before the lockdown. Exactly at the wrong time! Fortunately, this summer I found a job at Silverback Film, where I worked on nature documentaries. I’ve shifted a bit from ‘true’ science to wildlife.
Are you working as a director there?
No, the entry level is research, so I read all the articles and information for the producers. It’s a job you can still do during a pandemic. I have a lot of Zoom and phone calls, but that would have been the same without Covid-19. And it is fascinating to learn so much about the natural world.
Both films you have made, the earlier Smart Slime? (2019) and now Lifespan (2020) are about biology and what we can learn from small and unusual organisms. What attracts you to these subjects?
It is definitely a fascination. When I was a student I worked with nematode worms which are very small. They are easily overlooked, but their life is very interesting. Like the hydra in Lifespan, which are some of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I spend a whole week filming them. It was amazing: they live so long and therefore on a different time scale. They really have characters, despite not being intelligent or expressive. It is also fun to film them, because they are so small that they require a different way of filming. They are very alien-like when you film them up close – on their level.
“The hydra are some of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I spend a whole week filming them. It was amazing”
Lifespan opens with your grandmother sorting out photo’s that make her aging process very palpable. This seems to set off your research quest about how we could potentially prevent aging. Are you afraid of aging?
Good question. I don’t really think so. Just a little bit, like anyone else would be. It’s an interesting topic because it’s a bit taboo. Ultimately, I fear aging because of the deterioration of your body. What scares me is the ending: when you’re helpless and your functions completely crash. But in this film we see people trying to make it so that people can have a better end of life.
Still an end, but not eternal life?
No, I don’t think I don’t want that at all. I don’t think it would be good for anyone.
What does your grandmother think about getting older? Is she afraid of it?
She’s not worried about getting older. I had a good conversation with her about it and she thinks you really should live in the moment. She is happy and tries to be healthy and keep up with everything. She seems okay with getting old. It was her own suggestion to start the movie with her and the photos; I didn’t ask her that. I told her what my project was about and she jokingly said, “You can use pictures of me, I’m old.”
There are some intriguing animals in your documentary, such as the theoretically immortal hydra and the biology that defies the naked mole rat. How did you select the animals you wanted to portray in your film?
I did a lot of research and there were many animals that I was interested in. The fruit flies, for example, because that experiment is so incredible. Michael Rose has been running it for decades and the results are amazing. The naked mole rats are so strange. They are very endearing, fun and their experiment is fascinating. There were many animals that were interesting, such as flatworms that had to be cut out of the documentary because of the length. I also considered some fish, sharks, and trees, but the three I went with are the strangest. While the fruit flies aren’t all that strange, the experiments you can do with them are, because they are genetically close to humans.
How did you select the scientists?
My study in the lab with nematodes focused on aging, so that’s where my interest in the topic came from. Michael Rose, the fruit fly scientist, is a name that keeps popping up. He is very famous in the field. I contacted him to ask him to participate in the film. I didn’t think he would, but he did, which was exciting. The others came about through research and were available at the time. Luckily, they were all good on camera and good to work with. They all had experience with media and through research I knew all about their work. They are also very passionate about their research, so they were eager to talk about it.
Your film will be shown in a short program in which small creatures are central. Are there any other interesting things you learned from little organisms that you would like to share?
That’s a really good question. One thing that emerged was the turqouis killi fish, which is being studied for the opposite reasons, namely, it has an unusually short life for an invertebrate: just a few months. It lives in these ephemeral ponds and that’s why they live so short. I’m sure there are many that I don’t think about. The more you know about animals, the stranger they become.
Lifespan (2020) can be viewed in the film block Shorts: Big Stories Behind Small Matters on November 14, 2020. The shorts can also be viewed online from November 11 to 22 on the InScience 2020 online platform.