Documentary maker Drew Xanthopoulos started reading about the cognition, culture and communication of whales about four years ago, and was blown away by what he found.
“It was stranger than any science fiction I had ever read or watched on screen,” Xanthopoulos says. “It occurred to me that if I have such an emotional effect reading about science, the people who are out there on boats for months and months doing the job, it must be deep. for them. “
So he started attending conferences on whale research, where he met Michelle Fournet (pictured above right) and Ellen Garland, the subjects of his latest documentary “Fathom”. The film follows the two researchers in the field as the former tries to have a conversation with humpback whales, while the latter explains how whale song spreads across vast expanses of ocean.
Variety met Xanthopoulos ahead of the film’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (already launched on Apple TV Plus) to discuss the vital ‘Fathom’ conversation about women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and what the future holds for him and the whale researchers he has documented.
How did you choose Fournet and Garland as protagonists?
I wanted to focus on scientists who do great science, who ask deep questions that I think have big implications for the public. They also had to be scientists who went to sea for long periods of time. I wanted someone who, in order to try and get a feel for a different kind of consciousness, had to leave everything that had been doing it behind for months: his family, his house, his pets. This personal transformation interested me. There was a third factor, which is that you have to really love the person. You will hang around in the most vulnerable circumstances. I met Michelle first and then Ellen later, and it seemed to me that their research was really complementary. One was studying a sound produced by humpback whales and the other was trying to understand the global scale of how whale songs are shared.
Talk about incorporating the most human moments on the pitch. It can’t be 90 minutes of boat research photos, can it?
In the end, everything is at the service of the person; you’re trying to do justice to their process, their life, and their story. This film is a tribute to what it means to be a field researcher. With that comes boredom, comes repetition, comes really hard work and scary times. But also, the euphoria of letting off steam with his teammates. The hope was that with the way the movie is structured, you feel like those lighter moments are an exhale after holding your breath for so long to get things to work after planning so hard. Structurally, this is the balance that the film tries to achieve.
How important was it to include conversations about women in STEM?
Very. I hope these conversations could make a difference. You might have research grants that have budgets for child care items while someone is away. There are ways for institutions to show solidarity, but it is rather a question of knowing why do they not support young professionals who also wish to have a family and a spouse? The biggest problem is why do we have to sacrifice all of this? Is it really necessary, do we really have to leave it all behind? Or is it because the institutions that fund these things only prioritize work, not the vital part of research?
What are Ellen and Michelle working on next?
While waiting for funding opportunities, they would like to collaborate with each other. There are things they could explore together, one of them is to examine the vocals in the song, which no one has had a chance to analyze.
I have read and researched a lot. I’m at this nascent stage where I can’t say if I’m reading for fun or if I’m researching the next movie, which is a good place because that’s where “Fathom” was. Four years ago. It will be a branch of the same tree as “Fathom”, interested in the same themes of trying to take ideas that we have held onto so firmly, that make us unique and different, and try to subvert them a bit. I think the responsibility of art is to expand the way we see ourselves in relation to everything else, not to restrict it.