Star Men is the third film by Toronto, ON-based documentary filmmaker Alison Rose. Rose founded her company (Inigo Films) in 2001 and her previous documentaries include Galileo’s Sons (2003) and Love at the Twilight Motel (2009). Toronto Film Scene met up with Alison Rose in the astronomy department of the University of Toronto — the perfect location to discuss the intergalactic universe of Star Men.
The inspiration for Star Men comes in many ways from Rose’s personal love for astronomy, a result of the rural setting she grew up in. “We moved when I was a child and there was a period where I was very lonely, in a new town and the stars kept me company,” says Rose. “I started to keep binoculars on my windowsill and lay down all night looking at them.”
Star Men follows four astronomers (Donald Lynden-Bell, Roger Griffin, Nick Woolf and Wal Sargent), as they reconnect for the 50th anniversary of the start of their astronomy careers at the California Institute of Technology. Alison Rose first met Nick Woolf during the production of her first film, Galileo’s Sons, which involved the Vatican observatory. “The Vatican observatory had a new telescope, with a mirror cast in the mirror lab. I wanted to tour the mirror lab and Nick Woolf gave me that tour,” comments Rose. “He was such an amazing guy that I always wanted to make a film about him.” The seeds for Star Men further germinated when Rose attended a physics conference in Poland and met Donald Lynden-Bell. “We were talking and I asked him if he knew Nick, because they both had white hair and looked like they were the same age, and were both British,” chuckles Rose. “Donald told me about the reunion and they introduced me to the others.”
“We moved when I was a child and there was a period where I was very lonely, in a new town and the stars kept me company.”
Star Men is less about astronomy and more about the astronomers. It was Rose’s goal to make a story about these stargazers and the questions they pose. “I wanted to make a film about the people, because the people are wonderful and it’s their curiosity about the universe that we are a part of that drives astronomy.” Even though Star Men is a character-driven documentary, there are some scientific concepts that can soar over the heads of some viewers. “We tried to make it really accessible to a lay audience,” says Rose, regarding the science in the film. “My hope was if you got to know the people and trusted them that you would be open to their science, even as their science becomes increasingly complicated. I hope that their personalities make the science more accessible, but we also tried to explain it in really clear, simple terms.”
Throughout the course of filming, Alison Rose shot interviews with the astronomers, with her having a list of topics to explore, one being how they viewed religion as scientists. “I was raised in the United Church. That was an important part of my upbringing; I loved science and needed to know how to reconcile those two things,” says Rose. “These men are of that generation, where, like me, that was the practice. They were raised going to church, because that was the proper thing to do. I wanted to know where they were and their different perspectives are meaningful.”
“The ultimate message is that the meaning of life ultimately is rooted in what we do — in friendship, relationships, exploring, appreciating the world and enjoying life.”
The events of Star Men are portrayed chronologically, leading to a hiking trip towards the Rainbow Bridge monument in Utah. Rose states that this whole section of the film helps convey an important story element: how the astronomers are striving to do the same things they did when they were young, despite now having some physical limitations. Rose also states that there is a much more philosophical meaning for the road trip and hike, which is central to the film. “Both the road trip and the hike are metaphors for their, and our, scientific journey in the universe, and I hope the film works that way.”
There are many different messages Star Men is attempting to convey, one of them simply being that astronomy, and learning about the universe and the world that we are part of, is one of the most important things we can do. However, Rose also clarifies some of the film’s deeper meanings. “The ultimate message is that the meaning of life ultimately is rooted in what we do — in friendship, relationships, exploring, appreciating the world and enjoying life.” The film also conveys how all of these astronomers are doing what they have loved since they were young. “We don’t always appreciate so strongly that children can know at a very early age the thing they are meant to do, but I love that they did something they loved from childhood their whole lives,” says Rose. “I dedicated the film to girls and boys who love the night sky, with the hope that they would follow their stars.”
Star Men opens on Friday, February 12, 2016 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Alison Rose and subject Prof. Donald Lynden-Bell will be in attendance for Q&As at all screenings.