Huge icebergs rising in the distance dwarf multi-colored houses dotting the shore in Uummannaq, a remote town of 1,200 people in northwest Greenland. And in the summer of 2013, Oregon State University master’s student Saskia Madlener was there.
She was part of a team of Oregon State researchers deploying moorings programmed to measure sea level rise from the melting Greenland ice sheet. But more importantly, she was documenting the process.
When Saskia’s faculty advisor asked her to write an idea for her ideal thesis project, she had no idea she would end up in a boat in the middle of the ocean.
“I wanted to communicate oceanography through film,” she says. “My advisor said, ‘Why don’t you just film us, and that can be your movie?’ She was already headed to Greenland to conduct research, and it was the perfect way to collect qualitative data for my thesis.”
Saskia’s thesis focused on developing trust between the scientists in a documentary and an audience.
“Lots of people are interested in climate change, but they may not understand the specifics,” she says. “If they get information from scientists who are trustworthy, they’ll retain the information better.”
Her main goal was to make a movie about the scientists behind the science, presenting them as trustworthy and knowledgeable to help others understand the specifics of climate change.
She’s turned in a first draft of the film and defended her thesis, but Saskia doesn’t think the film itself is ready to stand on its own yet.
“There are no results,” she explains. “The trip I went on was the first season of a three-season piece of research, so the film doesn’t actually conclude with anything. It leaves you hanging.”
Saskia plans to return to Greenland with the Oregon State research team in summer 2015 to collect more information. She already feels she’s learned from her mistakes the first time around.
“My interview questions were crap,” Saskia says. “My shots were shaky, and the movie just isn’t complete. You feel dissatisfied after watching it.”
She expects to gain even more experience on the next trip to Greenland. Her ultimate goal is to establish a production company making scientific documentaries.
“I would specialize in oceanography, because that’s what my degree is in, and people could hire me to make short films about their research,” she says. These documentaries could meet the requirements for public outreach and education that are now included in many grant proposals.
But for now, she’s focusing on how she might improve her first film. She’s hoping the second trip will provide tangible results, and a solid ending no matter what happens.
“My mission as a science filmmaker is to produce honest films,” she says. “I want to be true to the experience.”
Still, climate change is an important issue. Sea levels are rising consistently, and scientists are concerned about the future of our oceans. Through her film, Saskia shows how one group of scientists is addressing the problem.
“I just want people to know that scientists are real people,” she says. “It’s a lot of work to get this kind of research done, and it’s only a small piece of the puzzle.”
Here is an excerpt from Saskia's documentary film.