Films generate serious discussion afterward
American Film Institute, NIH hold free ‘Science in Cinema’ series
After the evening movie ended July 11 at the AFI Silver Theatre, the audience members did not leave. Instead they pulled out notebooks and were prepared to learn about drug addiction — the topic of the movie and the speaker afterward.
This combination between movies and medicine is part of the ‘‘Science in Cinema” program, a six-week movie series sponsored by the Office of Science Education at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
‘‘Movies are a powerful experience,” said Bruce Fuchs, the director of the Office of Science Education and program’s creator. ‘‘Aside from being entertaining, they are great educational tools.”
Each week, a full-length movie is shown at the AFI Silver Theatre that involves a scientific theme. Some topics have included Asperger syndrome, depression and living with paralysis. After the movie, a high-ranking official, usually from one of NIH’s branches, makes a short presentation on the theme and then hold a longer question-and-answer section.
‘‘Many people who don’t think about science in their daily lives see one of these movies and have all kinds of questions,” said Fuchs, who credited the idea to a man who ran a similar program in St. Louis. ‘‘We wanted to use the opportunity to teach people about science.”
The July 11 showing marked the opening of the 2007 series. The featured film was ‘‘Half Nelson,” a story that follows inner-city history teacher Dan Dunne, played by Ryan Gosling, through his drug addiction and his friendship with one of his students, played by Shareeka Epps.
As the post-film presentation began, audience members flipped through the handouts or filled out the educational evaluation given before the film. Others, such as Wheaton resident Phil Travers, pulled out notebooks while Dr. Donald Vereen of the National Institute on Drug Abuse took the podium.
‘‘It’s a rare opportunity to converse with such high-ranking officials who work on these topics we see in the movies,” said Travers, 55, a self-proclaimed science fan who has taken a couple medical school classes.
While Travers scribbled many pages of notes, Vereen outlined the difference between drug abuse and addiction (addiction is a chemical dependency, whereas abuse is controlled, repeated use), who is addicted to drugs (mostly people younger than age 20) and why people take drugs (they give the brain a pleasurable experience eight times that of a good meal).
Audience members then posed questions about addiction, including inquiries into whether marijuana is addictive and what constitutes a caffeine addiction.
One man took the microphone and confessed that he believes he is a sugar addict.
‘‘Does it affect your work?” Vereen asked. ‘‘Does it affect your relationships? Does it affect your health?” When the man generally answered no to all three questions, Vereen suggested that an addiction was unlikely.
More complex questions also were posed. One audience member asked if the treatments for addiction could be used to help her schizophrenic daughter, while another asked about the best type of rehabilitation program.
‘‘Today’s discussion yielded the typical array of questions you will see,” Fuchs said. ‘‘We had some basic questions and some very in-depth questions. But all the questions allowed for an informative answer.”
While Vereen noted that ‘‘Half Nelson” was an accurate portrayal of drug addiction, program manager Debra Knorr added that even inaccurate movies are educational.
‘‘Our goal is to assess how accurate the film showed the scientific issue we are discussing,” Knorr said. ‘‘If it is accurate, the audience gets a vivid picture of the issue. If it is not, our speaker and the questions help pick apart the false parts to uncover an accurate picture.”
For audience members like Gail Esteves, a first-time attendee, the accuracy of the film was surprising.
‘‘I always thought movies were exaggerated and over-dramatic,” said Esteves, 29, a Silver Spring resident. ‘‘It was interesting to hear that a movie was extremely accurate in showing reality.”
Though Esteves and Travers noted the length of the event (almost three hours) and the late ending time as drawbacks to the program, they focused more on the positives.
‘‘The intersection between film and science allows us as listeners and viewers to have a context to talk about these issues,” Travers said. ‘‘It’s richer.”