Saturday, February 26, 2005

Our moment --- and we missed it (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to Elizabeth, our fund development person, saying that all good documentaries result from a combination of three things: a great story with great characters, good production and editing, and a stroke of luck. The first two are largely under your control as a filmmaker. The third, of course, is not.

"We've got the first two covered," I said. "What we need is something to happen. We need a stroke of luck."

As things often happen, not long after I said that, we got our wish. As Leon Lederman had hinted, there was some moaning and groaning going on as a result of the Bush administration's recently released budget. What had happened was something much more drastic. The Department of Energy, a division of which is directly responsible for Fermilab's budget, had suddenly cut Fermilab's next project, called the BTeV. The more we heard about this, the more we realized that this was, ironically, the stroke of luck we had been waiting for.

Before I write any further I must point out that in order to be a good documentary filmmaker, you must walk a tight line. Obviously, as a person, you never want harm to come to anyone. You never would wish something bad upon your subjects. You would never, as a person, hope for drama to enter the life of someone you've gotten close to.

However, as a filmmaker, you must develop a certain steely, clinical chamber in your heart. That metallic, impervious chamber starts beating quickly when something untoward does happen in the life of your subject. That's the voice in you that says "gosh, that's terrible. Where's my camera?" As long as the event has happened, as a filmmaker you owe it to your audience (and, truly, to your subject) to document it, to record it, to capture it. I say you owe it to your subject, because as Monica, my co-director, wisely pointed out, the truth makes the best story of all. People in your films truly become people when a full range of experiences happen to them. Audiences relate to them and respond to them when it becomes clear they are real people. As a filmmaker, you owe it to your audience to deliver a full story with real people.

So, we must confess, the steely chamber in our hearts began thumping, especially when we began to understand the scope of the tragedy there. This was not just the cancellation of another Fermilab project. This was the only major project scheduled for operation beyond 2009. With this one dead in the water, essentially Fermilab was dead in the water. It literally has no funding for Tevatron operation beyond that point. In short, Fermilab might have to close its doors in 2009. Unless something major happens, like an important discovery.

Let me repeat that: unless something major happens, like an important discovery. Ahem.

That's right. Suddenly, the search for the Higgs boson could be characterized as Fermilab's only chance for survival. If Fermilab did find the Higgs boson, you can bet the funding would flow again. If it looked as though the search for the Higgs was losing its importance to Fermilab, suddenly it must be back in the forefront, riding like a white horse, leading the charge.

Not only that, but there were some very angry, confused, dispirited, and bitter physicists at Fermilab. I think it should be obvious to anyone reading this that in all the appearances you've seen physicists make in documentaries, the words "angry, confused, dispirited, and bitter" are not adjectives you'd ever use to describe them. Physicists are often funny, earnest, intense, and perhaps clumsy, but the darker emotions are not typically associated with them. Any time emotions run high, it can energize a story with pathos, but when those emotions come from physicists? Gold.

And they had a right to be angry. This project had been in the pipeline for years and had passed every step with flying colors, clearing peer-review and governmental checklists. It was on track, and as recently as 45 days earlier had been given a major green light. Now, with no warning, it was simply canceled. Hundreds and hundreds of physicists had worked for years, some as much as a decade on this as their main project. Suddenly, all gone. Ten years in a career is not something easily dismissed. International collaborators had spent millions of their own money and years in their careers. Italians, Russians. All wasted.

And here's where we, the filmmakers, began to dispair. The more we found out, the more we realized we had missed. All the physicists had known the new budget was being released. All across Fermilab, scientists waited in front of their computers. It was even projected on a big screen. When the words flashed up on the screen, we were told physicists literally gasped and staggered into the hallways in disbelief. Literally. Phone calls, emails, stunned silences, oaths, curses, heads held in hands. An "all hands" meeting was called, in which the director of Fermilab addressed everyone and fielded questions. He announced he didn't know what was going to happen next, but thought that they'd probably have to cut 100 people from the staff. So much happened on that day.

And we missed it all.

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