New documentary tells biologist Tyrone Hayes’ tale of atrazine, frogs and Syngenta

Tyrone HayesSimply by doing research, UC Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes found himself a target of the agribusiness giant Syngenta. The problem? His research linked atrazine, one of Syngenta’s most widely used herbicides, to changes in frogs’ reproductive organs. It didn’t help that Syngenta had commissioned his work.

The story of Hayes’ study of atrazine and Syngenta’s efforts to destroy his credibility was told at length in a New Yorker piece by writer Rachel Aviv, “A Very Valuable Reputation,” which ran last February.

Now, it has been brought to life as a short documentary, “What’s Motivating Hayes,” directed by Jonathan Demme, who is perhaps best known for making “The Silence of the Lambs” but has also made documentaries about the Talking Heads, Neil Young and Jimmy Carter. In the film, Hayes goes back to his native South Carolina to pick up his story and is shown in his Berkeley lab, too; Aviv is interviewed as well.

The documentary is part of the pilot of a new series by the New Yorker magazine that recently debuted on Amazon. “The New Yorker Presents” is the video equivalent of a spin through the magazine’s pages; also featured are an interview with performance artist Marina Abramovic, live-action cartoon drawing, a poem that’s read and performed and a short play featuring actor Alan Cumming as God.

An Amazon sign-in is needed to view the video. The Hayes section starts at 12:30 minutes in.