‘Dinosaur 13’ a riveting tale
January 22, 2014
"My favorite part of visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York is walking down the Helibrunn Cosmic Pathway which wraps around the outside of the Hayden Planetarium. It is 360ft long, and every step you take represents millions of years in the universe’s 13-billion-year history. At the very end is the Age of the Dinosaurs, and just a little further down is an actual human hair, representing the duration of human existence. The width of a human hair. It puts things in prospective."
— Todd Miller
What a great story filmmaker Todd Miller has brought to the Sundance Film Festival this year with "Dinosaur 13," which continues its screening run as part of the U.S. Documentary competition and will screen in Park City on Friday.
You may recall the saga that began to unfold back in 1990 in South Dakota’s badlands when a team led by Paleontologist Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute came upon the largest, most-complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. They named it "Sue."
Tack on a ten-year fight over control and ownership of the prized skeletal remains between museums, Native American tribes, the Feds, and assorted rivals in the scientific community and you’ve got yourself a rather riveting tale.
Rather than grab the low-hanging fruit and exploit the less-admirable human traits that came into play over the old bones, however, Miller took the high road, the one with the educational component. It’s not like the media of the day didn’t already gorge itself in a feeding frenzy over quite different skeletons in quite darker closets.
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"We really wanted people to see the whole story… not just what they had read about or what they had heard. We wanted people to feel like they had lived through it with the people in the film," is how Miller put it in an email exchange with The Park Record.
He admitted maybe feeling a little like a paleontologist as he dug through the many layers of the story, but he wanted to make sure he didn’t send a mixed message: "I would never compare filmmaking to what paleontologists do. Those people work so hard and every time we were in the field I was in awe at their dedication to the science and labor of their work."
Steering away from a question involving a perceived rivalry between esteemed Paleontologists Jack Horner and Robert Bakker, who, along with many others in the scientific community are interviewed in the film, Miller took a not-undeserved poke at the fourth estate.
"I think a lot of the controversial aspects of paleontology are largely a media invention. But by the same token, many paleontologists like Jack and Bob differ on how data is interpreted so it naturally leads to conclusions that can vary widely."
Did his interviews end up having a "Roshomon" quality? "Some of them. For some people, because so much time had passed, they had trouble recalling specific events in the timeline. But others still felt like it happened yesterday and were still just as emotional today as when it happened 20 years ago."
"Everybody felt an obligation to tell their side of the story. And we allowed them to talk about it as long as they wanted to on camera. So some of our interviews lasted days, while others were only a few hours."
In the end, filmmaker Todd Miller came away quite impressed by "Sue," her journey, and the folks she encountered along the way.
"I think the most important thing I learned was the importance of communication. Many times while we were researching the film, it became apparent that if people just sat down and talked to each other a lot of the issues that sprang up could’ve been avoided. The other thing I learned was how important the study of natural history and paleontology are to our society and culture as a whole."
"Dinosaur 13" is one of 16 titles in the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition and will screen Friday, Jan. 24, at 6:00 p.m. at The MARC, Park City.
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