What’s a Science Film, Anyway?

The eight-day Imagine Science Film Festival, starting this weekend in New York, embraces experimentation in all senses of the word.

Oct 17 2015, 1:00pm

Image: via Autonomous, by Per Eriksson and Alexander Rynéus

What's magical about making films is what's magical about exploring the frontiers of science: You can control for so much, but you can't know in advance what's going to happen. You can't predict exactly what your subjects or your actors will do once the camera's rolling any more than you can know precisely how your atoms will behave. Curious, you take measurements as things happen. You might see something you've never seen before.

The Imagine Science Film Festival, a low-key eight-day melange of fiction and documentaries and discussions that starts this weekend in New York City, is driven as much by what's known as by what's not. Hybridization is part of its DNA: Alexis Gambis, its French-Venezuelan founder, was a biology researcher studying fruit flies at Rockefeller University who wanted a better way of conveying his excitement to others who weren't biologists. He turned his lab into a studio and made a film, and started a film festival on campus as a better way of fusing science and art.

For the eighth year, Gambis and a small team of organizers, volunteers, filmmakers, and scientists are doing just that, shedding light on the kind of quests that aren't always camera-friendly (Lia Giraud's short InVisible, for instance, grapples with the very problem of seeing, be it with our eyes or in a cloud chamber with laser measurements) or on the kind of quests so spectacular they could make Hollywood blush. Among the impressive visuals: Autonomous, a documentary from Sweden, that explores the future of robots and digital worlds; Toby Smith's Geosynchronous captures the spectacular launches of telecommunications satellites; and Su Rynard's The Messenger, which poetically documents the risks that our ecosystems pose to songbirds, which one researcher in the film says "are really like the canary in the coal mine.

Gambis, who eventually went to study at film at NYU, is now a professor at NYU Abu Dhabi; a satellite festival started there this year, and another, in Paris, is set to launch next year. He also turned his fruit fly film into a full-blown feature, and has made a new film, Campo Experimental, a documentary about Brazilian science set against the backdrop of the World Cup (both are playing at the festival).

Most of the screenings are accompanied by discussions with filmmakers and scientists. On Wednesday, I'll be hosting one of those screenings, titled Observer Effects, about the act of looking, with a series of films that includes the US premiere of InVisible. Among the festivals other premieres are Philippe Fernandez's sci-fi Cosmodrama, and Containment, a feature by the filmmaker Robb Moss and the historian Peter Galison—"part observational essay and part graphic novel"—that looks at the slowly decaying, and sometimes beautiful landscapes of nuclear storage.

Containment Trailer 1 from Robb Moss & Peter Galison on Vimeo.

There is also a 48 Hour Film Competition, which pairs young filmmakers with working scientists, and challenges them to make a short film over the weekend on the festival's theme; this year it's "air."

One film along that theme is First on the Moon, a dream-like tale based on a conspiracy theory about the lost cosmonauts who secretly landed on the moon decades before the US did, by the Russian director Alexei Fedorchenko, an economist turned filmmaker who made one third of the fever dream Fourth Dimension, with harmony korine and Jan Kwiecinski.

That film is also in keeping with the greater hybridization theme of the festival, said Nate Dorr, its programming director. "Science has long belonged equally to the lab and to the imagination."

In the spirit of science, the festival isn't simply about bringing science to the public, but about raising new questions too. Like, what's a "science film" anyway?