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Anna de Manincor • Director

"CERN is a place of absolute privilege and pure research"


- Director Anna de Manincor from the ZimmerFrei collective talks about her documentary about CERN, Almost Nothing, which screened at several festivals since it won an award at Nyon

Anna de Manincor • Director

After winning an award last April at Visions du Réel in Nyon, Almost Nothing [+see also:
interview: Anna de Manincor
film profile
by the Bologna-based collective ZimmerFrei, which delves into the world of CERN in Geneva, is due to have its Italian premiere at the 14th Biografilm Festival (14 to 21 June). The director of this Italian-French-Belgian co-production (in cinemas this autumn with I Wonder Pictures) is Anna de Manincor, who we we talked to about the great scientific community and the importance of its discoveries and failures.

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Cineuropa: More than its success, the film seems to focus on a perennial, and sometimes frustrating, state of research. Was this your initial idea?
Anna de Manincor: When we initially interviewed physicists and researchers, they all seemed too enthusiastic and optimistic, so we dug a little deeper and insisted they tell us about some of the challenges they face. The film isn't about discoveries revolutionising our concept of the world, it's about everything that happens the rest of the time, when no discoveries are being made. However, the work that goes on the rest of the time is still vital. It’s a bit difficult for us to understand. Even a negative datum is considered a result, even a demolished theory, for them, is a scientific advancement. The film changed a lot over the four years it took us to direct it. We realised that the screenplay wasn’t going to focus on specific characters. There are no faces or conflicts here, just people who work on experiments 20 kilometres away from each other before meeting in cafes at lunchtime. The film’s tension comes from CERN’s contrast with the outside world, where people demand immediate results. CERN is a place of absolute privilege and pure research, where everything is suspended in time.

Sometimes decades can pass before anything is discovered...
One of the themes we wanted to investigate is precisely: how do thousands of people work together on the same project for tens of years? There are people who may never see their research come to anything in their entire working life. There is a sense of melancholy and realism to their general optimism. A sense of time and immateriality to what they do. They’re conducting research on what might have happened a billionth of a second after the big bang – the birth of the universe – by using detectors that are as tall as seven-story buildings and allow them to observe the moment when two particles collide.

How did you approach this somewhat detached world?
We decided to make the film after creating six other films as part of the ZimmerFrei collective (which also includes Massimo Carozzi and Anna Ruspoli, ed), a project about "temporary cities," i.e. portraits of very different places in which a transformation is taking place, such as in Marseilles, Copenhagen or Budapest. This film also looks at how we perceive spaces. The challenge was to represent CERN in a different way, and we chose to convey it through the community of people who work there, a collective portrait of people who share the same purpose. CERN is a real hub of activity, it’s like two overlapping cities: the one on the surface, an industrial space, with buildings from different eras, nothing particularly beautiful; and the fascinating city that sits 100 metres below ground, housing a 27km tunnel where protons accelerate. We were lucky to film in 2015 and 2016 when no experiments were taking place, so we could basically film wherever we wanted, but there aren’t really any off-limits areas anyway. It’s not like NASA.

The solitude experienced by a researcher and their ability to admit they made a mistake are other interesting themes in the film.
Theoretical physicists, sitting in rooms full of papers, working on pure speculation, are like philosophers: they can pursue a theory for fifteen years and then see it nullified in a second. But then they go down to the cafeteria and see dozens of people, such as computer scientists, engineers, technicians, who look them in the eye and say: what are we doing down there, behind you? It’s a reminder of reality. As for making mistakes, there’s no issue with saying "we were wrong" at CERN. When there was that accident in 2008 (a helium leak from the cooling system of an accelerator, which was then halted for two months, ed), any commercial company would have looked for someone to blame; here, however, the focus is on how to start again and use the disaster to improve performance, without hiding anything from the world.

After the discovery of the World Wide Web, CERN holds yet another record: that of having given life to the first girl band to appear on the Internet.
Yes, Les Horribles Cernettes, from the acronym LHC (Large Hadron Collider). The first non-scientific image to be sent using the Internet belongs to them, representing the first instance of personal use of the Internet, before Facebook, Instagram or Myspace existed... We chose to tell that particular story because at the time they hadn’t even realised the extent of it. When one of their colleagues told them they’d seen a picture of them on the Internet, they didn’t even realise how the hell that was possible. That moment, witnessed 25 years later, gives you a sense of just how much things have changed since then.

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(Translated from Italian)

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