When Documentary Filmmaking Meets Academia – Screening ‘The Atom: A Love Affair’ at ISR

Vicki Lesley

As those who attended the recent ISR online screening of my film The Atom: A Love Affair heard in the lively discussion that followed, making this documentary has been an epic undertaking for me.

When I set out to investigate the renewed push for nuclear power back in the late 00’s, I had no idea that the social and political history of this contested energy source would end up consuming more than a decade of my professional life.

The journey was a long one partly for practical reasons – raising the finance for an independent film is notoriously difficult and I was still working my main job in TV, as well as having two babies along the way.

But there were unexpected benefits too, chief amongst them the freedom I had to follow whichever research paths interested me the most, without pressure from a broadcaster to produce a stereotypically combative film focusing on the same old ‘hot button’ issues (safety, waste, climate change etc). I wanted to do something different, exploring the deeper forces motivating all those involved in nuclear power, on whatever ‘side,’ from the geopolitical to the emotional.

I had little money, but I did have time. I was also fortunate to be invited to a series of meetings and workshops for an AHRC-funded project at Birkbeck College on ‘Material Cultures of Energy’ and a follow up project from the Science Museum where I met Edge Hill University’s Dr Phillipa Holloway, leading to the ISR screening.

The interaction with academia has been one of the real pleasures of making this film.  

Although the film is aimed at a general audience, I’ve been deeply gratified by the response from the academic community so far – the post-screening discussions after university screenings have without exception been extremely stimulating, as those attending have been able to draw out connections between the stories and characters in the film and their own work.

I also have a vast resource of unreleased interview footage – I interviewed about 50 different contributors for an average of 2 hours each so the material that made it into the final cut of The Atom: A Love Affair is really only the tip of the iceberg. I wonder if this material might be of use to any researchers out there – maybe even someone reading this blog? It would certainly be a wonderful coming full circle if at the end of the film’s long journey, and I might be able to make my own small contribution to the academic record in some way.

The Atom: A Love Affair, directed by Vicki Lesley, is available to stream at vimeo.com/ondemand/theatomaloveaffair You can contact Vicki directly at vicki@tennerfilms.com or find out more about the film via her website at https://theatomfilm.com

A Year of Covid TV

Covid Anniversary Blog

In a year when we spent more time at home than ever before, television provided a crucial window on the world. Ofcom estimated in August 2020 that during lockdown people were spending an average of 40% of their waking hours in front of a screen. TV watching was up by approximately a third.

While this might look like a windfall for TV broadcasters, these activities coincided with a sudden recession which wiped out a swath of advertising money. This led to a frustrating paradox – more people were watching, but broadcasters could not make extra revenue from the larger audiences.

In any case, there was the significant problem of what to fill schedules with. Like in most industries, normal processes for TV production juddered to a halt. We quickly became used to seeing contributors to news or panel shows Zooming in from home, with the inevitable ‘hilarity’ caused by interrupting children or pets.

Though our usual expectations for what TV ‘should’ look like were upended, in some ways these new practices provided a heightened version of the TV experience. TV has historically operated using an aesthetic that combines intimacy – an emphasis on human connection – with immediacy – the feeling that we are we are watching things unfold as they happen. Zoom interviews combine the two, giving us a momentary glimpse into the private world (and at the carefully curated bookshelves) of contributors.

But there were still huge gaps to fill in the schedules. Research at the University of Huddersfield suggested that this did not go unnoticed by audiences, who found their usual menu of ‘event television’ (high profile new shows scheduled in peak time) replaced by repeats.

The launch of Disney+ in March 2020 was seen by many as another nail in the coffin of broadcast television. Indeed, streaming video on demand services added an extra 4.6m subscribers during lockdown. Research found that people were turning to drama boxsets to escape the tedium.

Adopting a ‘show must go on’ attitude, the UK television industry agreed protocols in May 2020 for Covid secure productions. The gradual resumption of regular programming – especially soaps – mirrored the slow return to normality experienced in daily life. The reliability and routine of television schedules, especially daytime television provided a source of comfort to those who suddenly found themselves adrift in furlough.

Meanwhile, daily televised briefings provided a much-needed demonstration of the power and value of broadcasting. Watching the Prime Minister and his associates (or in Scotland, the First Minister) deliver key messages became for many a grim ritual, but one enabled by broadcast’s unique ability to gather a nation together.

The impact of Covid on TV production and broadcast has been vast and painfully visible. But it can also teach us about the ongoing value and importance television has in our lives: as a source of information, of comfort, and of connection. The problem comes of course, when you find that you have ‘completed Netflix’, and what to do next!

Dr Hannah Andrews is Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Covid-19: Hollywood’s Next 9/11?

Media scholarship, cultural commentary and movie reviews regularly reflect on production contexts and their impact on possible readings of the films and shows we watch. Both 9/11 and the Covid-19 epidemic have been described by as ‘America under attack.’ President Trump has stated that the epidemic is a ‘worse attack’ on the US than both Pearl Harbor and 9/11; extending a political rhetoric that has linked 1941 and 2001.[1]

In the wake of 9/11 numerous books and articles have considered its impact on tropes, gender representations, heroic (and superheroic) constructions and visual representations of, not only terrorism, but also violence more generally. 9/11 also impacted representations of ethnicity in a binary of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Saving Jessica Lynch, for example, a US 2003 made-for-TV movie, dramatised the ‘rescue’ of Private First-Class Lynch (white, female) from an Iraqi hospital, characterised the Iraqis as sadistic savages, and of course, Islamic zealots.  

Reflecting both 9/11 and Covid-19, Dahlia Schweitzer explores a striking connection between terrorism and contagion when she writes about the spate of TV shows in the post-9/11 period, that combined the terrorist threat with deliberate viral infection. In such examples, either a virus-laden ‘bomb’ is hidden in a public place or an infected person deliberately spreads the virus within the USA; often again with racial undertones.

In 24 (Fox, Season 3, 2003-4),[2] the viral threat hails from Mexican drug barons. In, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), the virus is traced to food preparation in China. In both, the origin of the threat is placed the ‘exotic’ Global South and East – while the location under ‘threat’ is the affluent Global North. Such representations follow a narrative pattern that ‘buries the workings of colonialism.’[3]

2020 may have a similar, if not even a more pronounced impact on popular culture that goes beyond the films and TV shows that are broadly labelled ‘Hollywood.’ Yet it is likely that the stories will be told, as with 9/11, in a way that reflects dominant attitudes towards the ‘others’ responsible for the threat.

Where there is attack there is an aggressor, setting the scene for an ideal melodramatic conflict of good and evil. Based on the narratives emerging from the post-9/11 era, and given President Trump’s well-publicised Tweets referring to the ‘Chinese virus,’ we may be set to see more films and TV shows placing the blame for global threat on China specifically or fictional places conspicuously designed to mimic that nation. Such representation will serve to re-enforce conceptualisations of good and evil, rather than challenge them.

Dr Jenny Barrett is Reader in Film Studies and Popular Culture, and Deputy Director: International Centre for Racism at Edge Hill University.


[1] For example, Ebony Bowden, ‘Trump says coronavirus pandemic ‘worse than Pearl Harbor…World Trade Center’, New York Post, 6th May 2020

[2] Dahlia Schweitzer “Terrorist as Contagious Other.” In Media Res.29th November 2016.

[3] Mark Bould, ‘The Virus Has Seized the Means of Production,Boston Review, 8th May 2020.


Wither Fake News: COVID-19 and its Impact on Journalism

The current pandemic has reproposed, this time with more acuity than ever, key questions for the media and journalism.

First, the current crisis has reconfirmed that our reality is indeed substantially shaped by media. We live in an era of deep mediatization, as researchers call it (see Andreas Hepp’s Deep Mediatization book published in 2019, among many others), with every aspect of our lives shaped by media technologies. It is likely that reality, society and interpersonal communications will forever be changed by this. As our WhatsApp and Zoom communications continue, we will definitely come out at the other end speaking and communicating differently.

Fake news is also now a staple feature of media production and consumption. It seems though that this virus is worsening the widespread infection of established functions of journalism: the promotion and defence of truth, verification and expertise.

Journalism IS defined, at its core, as a discipline of verification. Social media, citizen journalism, the 24-hour news cycle, and the speed of breaking news have already impacted on journalistic practices, our trust in news outlets and our understanding of truth and expertise. The crisis is now asking tough questions about the ways fake news, conspiracy theories and those, whoever you believe they are, behind them, have managed to relativize truth and trust, and have relaxed the rules about who is allowed to speak and with what knowledge and expertise.

However, it is not all bad news. It means we need verified and verifiable journalism more than ever. There is evidence that consumption of local news – not long ago a weakening and on-its-way-out branch of journalism – is increasing, as people are keen to understand the pandemic realities of their local areas.

We have more ‘proper’ experts invited to speak in the media, and that’s good news for scientists and academics too. More people are tuning into public service broadcasters for those old-fashioned qualities; balance and verification. The Advertising Standards Authority is also beginning to crack down on misleading web ads for COVID-19 treatments, as reported by The Drum last week. However, this last piece of news will also add to many liberals’ concerns about the long-term negative impact on democracy of increased regulation, policing and the use of emergency crisis laws to deepen dictatorial tendencies (does anyone care about Hungary?).

Finally, we know that COVID-19 is changing journalism and media production in terms of practice as well: the ways newsrooms operate, the rules of news gathering and interviewing, the screen aesthetics and on location shooting. With home schooling in full swing and likely to continue, the pandemic is also asking the creative industries, more generally, to rethink the way employees are operating. This is particularly acute in an industry where the practice of long shifts has forever disadvantaged women. Will the future of women in journalism and media be better or worse following this crisis? I will gladly leave that baton there for someone else to take up and run with. 

Dr Ruxandra Trandafoiu, Reader in Communication and ISR Fellow at Edge Hill University.