the temptation to imbue its clipped statements with any existential or overly symbolic significance. For this we can be grateful.
Though, despite the modesty of their approach, I was reminded of something Patrick White wrote in Voss. ‘‘ Every man has a genius, though it is not always discoverable,’’ he said. ‘‘ But in this disturbing country . . . it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite.’’ VACCINATION is a remarkable but often invisible gift; there are so many stories of so many of us who are alive and untouched by disease that are rarely told. What are being told, though, are stories about reactions to vaccination, and the debate has become heated and often acrimonious, most recently with rumours about the safety of the new meningitis jab. The more established vaccinations are also coming in for heavy criticism. The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine came under fire after reports suggested it might be linked to autism and the bowel disorder Crohn’s disease — reports since discredited in further studies.
As new SBS-commissioned feature-length doco Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines points out so dramatically, on the one side are anxious parents who don’t want to vaccinate their babies because they see a risk of permanent damage; on the other side are the doctors who warn of an epidemic if parents shun the shots.
What is not in doubt is that there are new dangers as diseases largely unseen for generations are returning. There is a serious danger that if levels of immunisation continue to fall we will see a resurgence of epidemics.
Yet as Rachael Blake, who quietly and gravely narrates Jabbed, tells us there are also cases of vaccine reaction that severely damage lives and an increasingly fragile public trust. How do we decide to vaccinate or not? And what, indeed, are the real risks? And what fuels a growing trend of vaccine hesitancy across the world?
Directed by Sonya Pemberton, Jabbed is often heartbreaking, a compelling story of love, hope and fear, beginning with her intimate access to a small child suffering whooping cough in a Melbourne hospital. Never swayed by emotion, even if touched and occasionally humbled by it, she manages to relate a host of complex issues to everyday experience.
It wasn’t easy. ‘‘ I drowned in stories and, to be honest, I cried a great deal,’’ Pemberton says of the 21/ years she spent making Jabbed. ‘‘ There were times I wanted to give up, but I set myself the task to follow the science.’’
Jabbed was made by Genepool Productions, a new joint venture between Pemberton Films and Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder. It’s Australia’s first TV production company focusing on quality science programming. And Melbournebased Pemberton is one of TV’s great storytellers, one of our leading documentary writers, directors and executive producers. She’s one of those TV filmmakers whose cultural contribution is awesome remains little known to the public.
Pemberton has written and directed more than 40 hours of TV, specialising in science documentaries for an international market. Her films have won more than 30 awards and she has been honoured with the prestigious Eureka Prize for science journalism three times.
Last year she won an Emmy for Decoding Immortality, which explained the work of Nobel prize-winning Australian scientist Elizabeth Blackburn on the so-called immortalising enzyme, which is being used to measure and in some cases slow down our biological, molecular clock. Pemberton likes to think of herself as ‘‘ a translator of science’’, drilling down into seemingly impenetrable ideas and research when there’s so much denialism, scepticism, fear and trepidation about science.
But she’s a filmmaker, too, and no one appreciates more readily than she does that TV tends to be promiscuous and demanding.
It has a short concentration span, flirting with ideas, then abruptly dumping them. What appears on the screen must grab our attention and not let it flit away, and Pemberton straddles the categories of art and journalism, entertainment and knowledge with her gamechanging films.
While I haven’t seen Decoding Immorality, I was struck by Catching Cancer (2009), a film about the way thought-provoking science has begun to unravel the factors that rig the lethal odds of the cancer lottery. She revealed how scientists were offering hope in the form of vaccines, antibiotics and improved hygiene. It’s a contentious idea — that sometimes viruses can cause cancer — and not everyone agrees, but Pemberton made a credible claim and produced some riveting television. Which she does here.
Jabbed is a project that is especially important to her. ‘‘ My motivation is simple. I am saddened and worried by the deep concerns, the ridicule and the polarisation around vaccines,’’ she says, perturbed by the endless ‘‘ us’’ v ‘‘ them’’ conversations that seem to lead nowhere.
‘‘ I want us to talk to, and listen to one another. I want us to broaden our views through science and emotion, through logic and the heart.’’
Tracking across the globe in her new film, Pemberton explores the reasons for complacency and the fear of vaccination, while rigorously examining the cost of delaying or refusing the jab. She investigates those heartbreaking cases and reveals the latest science behind such life and death tales, and elegantly, through some witty animation from designer Dom Bartolo, places them in a statistical and historical context.
‘‘ Either way I looked at it, so many vaccine stories were about loss — people devastated by vaccine-preventable disease or those rare but equally frightening [if often unverifiable] stories of vaccine reactions,’’ she says. ‘‘ My challenge was how to make sense of these and how to find the lighter moments to carry us through.’’
She had several people on her documentary team who chose not to vaccinate their families, she says, something she found confronting, as Pemberton is a supporter of vaccines. She chose to work alongside them, even as they differed so profoundly in their views. ‘‘ And through them, and many others, I learned to really hear another point of view and although we did not agree, I learned to understand another dialect.’’ Together, she says, they found a mutually respectful voice. And together they have made a startling, moving, layered and surprising film.