This year's Imagine Science Film Festival showcased 81 short films in the span of a week. By the judgments of festival attendees and a film panel of four (Carl Zimmer from the New York Times, Martin Chalfie of Nobel Prize fame, producer Wendy Ettinger and artist Barbara Visser), the following films emerged as the best of the fest. While starkly different in filmic style and scientific content, they are united in the fact that each offers invitation into obscure and often quirky worlds outside our own. These are films innocent of politics and buttressed by the rich economy of curiosity, screened for a circle of cosmopolitans looking to be inspired in a city that promises everything but mostly delivers variations of the same.
The winner of the Visual Science award went to Kaltes Tal, which, frankly, collects its inspiration from a boring source: the industrial cycle of harvesting lime. Its success as a film is a testament to the skills of filmmakers Florian Fischer and Johannes Krell, who were able to see and ultimately exploit the monochromatic beauty of this particular labor, inciting a narrative discourse on the “fragility of nature and the role of humans in the Anthropocene.”
At the start of the film, you, the viewer, are dropped off in a limestone factory decorated with a heavy layer of fine white sediment. Gradually, the camera guides you further without warning, leaving the factory behind and entering a forest. Here we observe a funny attempt to reset the balance of nature, one that was only off as a consequence of manufacturing. The distinction between “real footage” and the dystopian imagination of Fischer and Krell becomes unnoticeable, buried. Like a dream, subconscious guilt generates exaggerated outcomes. But as the film’s creators go on to prove, sometimes a bad thing makes for a mesmerizing picture.
Kaltes Tal is white. The Diver, Visual Science award runner-up, chooses black. Both affect a sense of absence. In Esteban Arrangoiz's Diver, we watch a man willingly submerge himself in the vomit-inducing crap of municipal sewage water. It’s an odd occupation, one made to be featured on Dirty Jobs or Somebody’s Gotta Do It, but there is something to be said for Julio Cesar Cu Camara’s pride in his work, which he describes as a civil service. While underwater, the pollution pinches out his vision like a small flame. All we are left with is an audio of his commentary, which often waxes poetic.
“I feel alone in space, just like I’m alone at the bottom of the sump…And I feel good.” He says.
“I feel the pressure of the water. I feel it’s embracing me. It feels like the water is holding me. The water is protecting me. And I don’t want to stop feeling this.”
Optic Identity, the result of a weeklong collaboration between Finnish production house Pohjankonna Oy and neuroscience graduate student Huayi Wei, as well as recipient of this year’s Tribeca Film Institute award and Science Sandbox award, employs a similarly visual-deficient mode of storytelling. Half of Drosophila’s brain is dedicated to vision. What they see is what they are. As humans, we juggle a hybrid of senses, though we tend to navigate the landscapes of our memories with visual markers. Through an interview with Nefertiti Matos Olivares, a New York local who lost her eyesight, Optic Identity explores how human memory changes when vision is fatally impaired. Black and white shots of shadowy subway rides. The city is reduced to pins of light and swaths of dark.
Film – def. a series of still images that when shown on a screen create an illusion of motion images.
Film – def. an optical illusion which causes the audience to perceive continuous motion between separate objects viewed rapidly in succession.
On the other hand, Mia Mullarkey and Alice McDowell’s mid-length short, Feats of Modest Valour, is never without a visual medium. Animation, lab footage, and intimate interviews with three individuals living with Parkinson’s combine to win Feats the Scientist award as presented by Science AAAS, dubbing it the film that most successfully “encourages more scientists to create films that let us into their minds, labs, and lifestyle.” Sarah Crespi and Nguyen Khoi Nguyen's The Smell Test comes in second with a premise to incite the next science fiction bestseller: canines that are trained to sniff out disease. Both draw their sense of anticipation from the reality of unfinished research. In fact, the suspense is never quelled. These are real science films, tragic in that problems are perpetually en route to resolution and the end is little more than a mirage.
With this set up, the sequels should be better.
In 2007, Lifetime broadcasted a game show called America’s Psychic Challenge. The contestants were empaths, clairvoyants, and spiritual mediums. In each episode they were asked to prove their abilities to the American public. Once they were asked to locate a boy the show producers had hidden in the desert. Once they were asked to pick out the criminal from a group of four men. Several times they were placed in a room and asked to describe the crime that had once unfolded there. Some of the contestants were so distraught they began to cry. “The air is thick,” they said, staring at the ceiling. “There was a sense of loneliness even though she appeared to be surrounded by people,” they said, while holding an envelope containing the victim’s picture.
For some reason, the show was never renewed for a second season, even though it was amazing. Maybe there were too many skeptics. But belief in psychics or not, there is no denial that there is something intoxicating about an enhanced ability to see or be seen by the other side.
The winner of this year’s People’s Choice and Scientific Merit award, given to the film that exemplifies science in a compelling, credible, and inspiring manner, in fact went to a 16-minute short where a parrot chastises us for being so preoccupied with the Great Unknown that we neglect the species with whom we share the planet. It is absurd, particularly because we forget that we are also objects of observation. Sight is not one-directional, the parrot reminds us in The Great Silence. Sometimes we are so attuned to ambition that we fall out of touch with our immediate reality.
Nipam Patel’s Squid: Coming to Life, Scientific Merit runner-up, directs our sight even further inward, drawing us via time-lapsed microscope footage into the development of squid embryos. Like The Great Silence, Squid reminds us of the worlds within our world—and these, unlike the cosmos, are readily observable. Finally, the generative animation Nematode by SYMBIOSIS participants, filmmaker Peter Burr and scientist Alexandra Grote, also plays with the infinitesimal, sourcing inspiration from parasitic nematodes and their endosymbiosic relationship with the bacteria Wolbachia. The result is a network reconstruction, a short that watches like a video game in colors not unlike those found in Squid.
Even though New York City exists as a safe haven for anomalies, one could argue that to the broader public, experimental films—even those supplemented by the “logic” and “reasoning” of science—often face the same threat of backlash as a show about empathetic healers and spiritual guides. So, it is telling that the experimental won big at the Imagine Science Festival. We are transfixed by beauty and starved for new perspectives. We can desire both the mystical and the rational. A hybrid of curiosities.
These are the winners of the 10th Annual Imagine Science Film Festival.
The Great Silence (Jennifer Allora, Guillermo Calzadilla, Puerto Rico, 2016)
Scientific Merit Award Winner presented by Imagine Science Films | People's Choice Award Winner presented by Labocine
Arecibo, the world’s largest radio telescope, is located in Esperanza, Puerto Rico, which is also home to a critically endangered species of parrots. The telescope functions as an ear that is capable of capturing signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The witty messages from the parrots remain unnoticed.
Feats of Modest Valour (Mia Mullarkey, Alice McDowell, Ireland, 2016)
Scientist Merit Award Winner presented by Science/AAAS | People's Choice Award Runner-up presented by Labocine
Three individuals live clockwork existences, dictated by a strict regime of medication and the challenging physical reality of living with Parkinson's. Meanwhile, a team of dedicated scientists in Galway are developing a new medical device, which could potentially halt or even cure the devastating disease. Woven together with observation and animation, the film invites us to witness the story of groundbreaking medical science taking place in Galway and the profound impact this will have on people with Parkinson's Disease both nationally and worldwide.
Kaltes Tal (Johannes Krell, Florian Fischer, Germany, 2016)
Visual Science Award Winner presented by Nautilus
Oscillating between aesthetic and documentary forms, KALTES TAL describes the daily business of a strip mine harvesting lime. The material removed is processed and returned to nature through forest liming. This measure attempts to counteract acid rain that troubles the forest floor. A cycle like a Mobius strip – an irreversible consequence due to the mining materials in order to restore the fragile natural balance. Lime dust delicately dusts the forest floor. A white, spherical alternative world opens, questioning our ambivalent relationship to nature.
Optic Identity (Hannes Vartiainen, Pekka Veikkolainen, Janne Pulkkinen, Huayi Wei, United States, 2017)
Symbiosis Award Winner presented by Science Sandbox | Simons Foundation & Tribeca Film Institute
We all have a biological identity - a genetic hardware that can not be easily changed. About half of Drosophila's brain is dedicated to vision. What they can see, is who they are. What about us?
Squid: Coming to Life (Nipam Patel, United States, 2017)
Scientific Merit Runner-up presented by Imagine Science Films
Microscopy, timelapse, and observation beautifully captures a lab's full study of squid embyonic development.
The Diver (Esteban Arrangoiz, Spain, 2016)
Visual Science Award Runner-up presented by Nautilus
Julio César Cu Cámara is the chief diver in the Mexico City sewerage system, he job is to repair pumps and dislodge garbage that flows into the gutters to maintain the circulation of sewerage waters.
The Smell Test (Sarah Crespi, Nguyen Khoi Nguyen, United States, 2016)
Scientist Merit Award Runner-up presented by Science/AAAS
Kate Prigge of the Monell Chemical Senses Center studies what things smell like—to us, to canines, and to machines. By using many different sensing technologies, from mass spectrometers to working dogs, she is honing in on the smells that signal health and disease. In her latest work, Prigge is getting help from medical working dogs that are able to smell ovarian cancer in patient samples. The next step is to design a machine that can do as good a job as a German Shepard in picking out odors linked to the disease. Learn more: http://www.sciencemag.org/projects/xxfiles
Nematode (Hannes Vartiainen, Pekka Veikkolainen, Janne Pulkkinen, Huayi Wei, United States, 2017)
Symbiosis Award Runner-up presented by Science Sandbox | Simons Foundation & Tribeca Film Institute
Some parasitic nematodes have an endosymbiosic relationship with the bacteria Wolbachia. In Nematodes, we reconstruct this symbiotic relationship and break it down, finding ourselves at the model's writhing core.