Director’s Comment

September 1, 2010

Comment on the NY Times

During the filming of “To Age or Not To Age”, a number of the scientists mentioned, in one way or another, that aging research has historically been seen as crackpot, from the ancient myths to Ponce de Leon.

I had also looked skeptically at the pursuit of radical life extension or extreme diets and hadn’t thought much about the subject. My past films have ranged from an intercultural romance, “Some Fish Can Fly” to a documentary on the structure of the mainstream news media “Orwell Rolls In His Grave” (I will return to this latter example in a bit).

Aging research popped up on my radar by accident. In late 2006, a big picture on the front page of the Science Section of the NY Times showed two monkeys staring at the camera. The accompanying story spoke about calorie restriction’s possible impact on their health and longevity, and, the underlying genes controlling the aging process.

Intrigued, over three and a half years I collected enough material for several films.  Questions arising about the implications of this research (both political and economic) beg for several more.

Mainstream molecular biologists have been looking into the genetic basis of aging for almost 20 years now. The 2009 Nobel Prize was awarded to Researchers working in this field (on the telomerase gene). 18 years ago, three or four labs in the world were studying aging, now there are three or four hundred.

However, strikingly, many scientists still note a certain resistance to their research linking aging and disease – or as George Bernard Shaw said: “all great truths begin as blasphemy”.

Imagine what would happen if the people could take a single pill that would keep the vast majority of them healthy and active to an old age (extreme life extension being a separate issue).  That is what these scientists are talking about.

One’s first reaction is “Wow that would be great let’s do this.”

Then think a bit more.

For instance, several Scientists complained about the lack of funding, and, as one doctor said, “you come up against the power of very large companies and organizations with entrenched interests, economic or otherwise, in the status quo”. Others opined that the media does a poor job of giving context to their research; that individual discoveries are reported, dropped, and ‘then reported on again like it is another first’, but without connecting the dots of the research. One researcher said: “the general public has no idea of what is about to happen in the next several years”

With the above as a backdrop, I want to tell a certain story about the release of “To Age or Not To Age” earlier this summer.

This past February, I screened a cut of the film at Symphony Space in New York City. Dr. Leonard Guarente of MIT, the late Dr. Robert Butler (founder of the NIA in one of his last appearances) and Aubrey de Grey Ph.D. of Cambridge, came into town and appeared with me on a panel following the screening. The entire event was simulcast to a number of venues across the country by Emerging Pictures.

Prior to the screening I was introduced to Nicholas Wade, the New York Times science reporter who has written continually about this research for the Times. He had been previously sent a DVD. “I very much liked your film, I liked the way you made the research understandable to the average viewer, and you did it in a nice way. I particularly liked how you showed the personalities of the scientists.” (I had secretly wondered if anyone would pick up on how important it is to see the people behind the research, versus five second sound bites – so I was delighted by his remark).

Later, the producer and publicists spoke to Mr. Wade on a couple of occasions and had been told that he was going to write something about the film. Several weeks before we opened in July, I was informed by the publicist that Wade had “filed” the story.

Two Days before the opening I had dinner with Dr. Leonard Guarente and Nicholas Wade in New York.

His piece never ran.

What did happen was this: two days later, Stephen Holden wrote a ridiculing review of the movie, he even insulted the scientists – several of whom had praised the film’s simplified yet accurate explanation of their work (actually a daunting task given scientific jargon).  Now I am thinking… ‘did this film suddenly become incoherent.’

I call my last two documentaries “Basement Pictures” because they are low tech but go deep.

On opening night in New York I did a Q&A with the audience. Afterwards, one soft spoken man approached me and said “I read the New York Times’review today – that review had nothing to do with this movie”.  Others were heard saying similar things.

I looked up Holden.  He’s a 69 year old single man who lives in New York and Miami – a former music critic, now a NY Times film reviewer – whose brother is apparently a  respected poet and Professor at a Midwestern college. I thought: ‘Could that be it – that this guy has never uttered a new word and is now just a bitter old hack’?

Or – was it the NY Times knocking down the upstart:  protecting their territory -’They will decide when and how the public becomes aware of stories’.  It is hard to say.

I do have two bits of additional information.

Back in the fall of 1999, I received a good review from the NY Times for my little romance set in NY and Ireland.

In 2004, my stinging documentary about the mainstream news media (Orwell Rolls In His Grave) was widely praised. But in the Times it was reviewed by someone who normally didn’t review theatrical releases, and, he ridiculed the film’s notion that media conglomerates have a lot of power because TV ratings are going down. (The film has since become a bit of a classic on the subject, is used widely for teaching purposes in colleges and can be found in most libraries).

Parenthetically, there is a recurring response people often have when I mention that a given major story has gone under reported or unreported: “if that was true I would of heard about it”.

This, unfortunately, is simply not so.

To Age or Not To Age” is not news reporting; the Science is unsettled and will  continue to evolve. I have come to understand that the methodology of scientists is to try to disprove things, until they are more than 99% sure “that something” is true – that is, until another paradigm shift rewrites the rules.

What is key to understand is the trajectory of aging science. The question is not “if’ but “when”.

To Age or Not To Age” attempts to connect the dots and to ask questions – despite any gatekeepers’(of the “status quo”) attempts to manage the information. These are huge questions that will not go away. How they are framed and discussed is very important.


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