|The Nobel: Visions of Our Century: Inteview With Filmmaker/Producer Bonni Cohen|
Documentary filmmaking is a long, grueling process and the subject matter of this film is seemingly quite broad in scope. What inspired you to make this documentary, and what can viewers expect?
I wanted to make a film that allowed laureates to tell their stories. I was intrigued by the personalities and personal stories of the laureates and what drove them to their achievements. Instead of making an historical film about the Nobel Prize, I thought it would be interesting to let the laureates tell their version of the 20th century. I decided to throw out conventional storytelling and let the film take on a structure guided by these stories.
At first it was quite intimidating to contact the laureates and convince them to be a part of the film. This was a difficult hurdle. However, once I was out in the field, talking with various laureates, the thrill of the documentary process took over.
Considering the number of Nobel Prize laureates around the world, how did you go about deciding on which winners to highlight in the film?
It was important to have representation across the six disciplines. I was eager to have scientists, writers and peacemakers who had previously mused on the big issues of the film -- like social responsibility in science, the consequences of war and peace in our time, and the inevitability of progress.
I wanted to have the peace and literature laureates serve as social commentators on the 20th century. Of course, there were endless choices to be made. I was particularly taken with a book of essays about the 20th century by Nadine Gordimer called Living In Hope and History, in which she reflects on the momentous events of the last hundred years. Some of this is included in the film and was a major reason behind having her narrate the film.
For the scientists, I tried to find laureates who could represent some of the scientific turning points of the last century and who could speak broadly about science. For example, Murray Gell-Mann's discovery of the "quark" is considered the moment that altered the understanding of particle physics in our time. But, Gell-Mann was also able to talk about the beauty of the physics and the complexity of the natural world.
Was it intimidating to interview people who have been recognized in such a way as the Nobel Prize for their work?
The best way to describe intimidation during this process is to disclose that I never took any physics in college. My last contact with the sciences was in high school. Therefore, sitting down to an interview with Doug Osheroff, physics laureate from Stanford, discussing the low-cooling temperatures of helium was a bit out of my league. But, given how little I knew about the specifics of their work -- particularly the scientists -- I was genuinely impressed by their willingness to speak broadly and candidly on a range of difficult subjects. I have to say it was an incredible honor to have this opportunity to spend time with these distinguished minds.
What was the most surprising or interesting thing you learned during this project?
I found that many of the laureates hearkened back to a specific time during their childhood when it had become clear to them what their life's path would be. It might have been a chance discussion with a parent, a travel opportunity, a specific book or person that had great influence. These people had been driven as children or as young people to strive, single-mindedly, for excellence.
The documentary looks at the role played by the prize and its winners over the last century and their contributions to society. What do you think the future holds in store for the Nobel Prize?
It is my understanding, from talking with the laureates and looking at the evolution of the prizes, that the Nobel committees bring broad interpretations to their choices. For example, physics and economics, as fields of science, are having to take into consideration computer technology and advances in technology that Nobel could never have considered at the end of the 19th century.
Alfred Nobel had hoped that a few years after its inception, the Peace Prize would no longer be necessary. This year, the recognition of Kofi Annan and the United Nations is a great example of how the Norwegian Nobel Committee serves as a guide to us all -- helping to identify where we need to concentrate our attentions in the hope of creating a more peaceful world.