When Alexis Gambis founded Imagine Science Films over a decade ago, he could not have foreseen that its 13th annual film festival would occur during a pandemic that underlines exactly what ISF wants to do: that is, make people aware of what science means in our lives, an understanding heightened today as we face a deadly coronavirus that only science can stop. Fortunately, like other institutions, ISF found a way to safely and effectively present Imagine Science Film Festival 13. This event was shown fully online using the Labocine platform, a library of science-based films, between October 16 and 23, 2020.
From Hollywood mega-studios to independent films and film festivals, the film world is grappling with the loss of the big screen, live audience theatrical experience during the pandemic (and maybe after). ISFF13 showed that there are some plusses to going online, at least for a festival. The online version presented 80 films, several times the number displayed in earlier years, with many enriched by remote follow-up panel discussions with the directors and others. The films had over 20,000 total views, a nine-fold increase over the 2019 in-person festival.
The online effort worked smoothly and its films reflected what ISF has supported over its history. They represented fiction, non-fiction documentary and experimental, and animated films. They displayed wide diversity, coming from 41 different countries with their varied ethnic groups. The film’s directors were nearly equally balanced between men and women, with more women at 54 percent (while Hollywood continues to struggle with gender equality). There was scientific diversity too. The films covered topics from animal behavior to general relativity, genetics to botany and related to the pandemic as well in Spanish Flu, about the great pandemic of 1918, and Coronation, about the response to Covid-19 in Wuhan, China. And while science was a main topic, so were scientists, with films that showed their humanity and how they think.
Coronation(Dir: Ai Weiwei)
Few viewers would have been able to watch all the films, but any viewer could pick a satisfying menu from among the offerings. My own menu leaned toward my scientific research area, physics, and other topics in science and technology that I have written about. Another criterion was to watch films that tackle big issues about how science and society affect each other.
That last criterion applies to the feature-length documentary Picture A Scientist (2020, USA, Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck, 97 minutes) that opened ISFF13 and was a selection of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival (cancelled however due to the pandemic). The title is a reminder of the Draw-A-Scientist test where young students are asked to draw a scientist, as a way to explore early perceptions of researchers. Typically both boys and girls draw a white male in a lab coat, often with unruly hair like Einstein’s. Challenging this stereotype animates the three Ph. D. female researchers in the film who describe the personal and professional barriers in their careers. Their strong narratives mingle with stories and analysis from other women and some men, filling in the picture of how badly women have been treated in science and how to change that.
Nancy Hopkins, professor of biology at MIT, relates her harassment by a Nobel Laureate scientist, then how her awareness of unfairly allocated research resources led her with others to improve the status of women at MIT. Raychelle Burks, then professor of chemistry at St. Edward's University, Austin, Texas and a woman of color, speaks of harmful moments in a profession dominated by white men, from being mistaken for a custodian to discomfort at scientific conferences. She embraces the value of diversity in science by being authentically herself in award-winning outreach, to demonstrate that scientists are not only white men. Jane Willenbring, professor of geology, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, tells of humiliating sexual harassment by her adviser David Marchant during field research in Antarctica. Her formal harassment claim years later was triggered by the fear that her young daughter could one day be “treated like trash” as she had been, and led to Marchant’s firing from Boston University.
Picture A Scientist (Dir: Sharon Shattuck & Ian Cheney)
Another feature-length documentary, Coded Bias (2020, USA, Shalini Kantayya, 86 minutes) explores a growing issue in our society: are decisions about people made by algorithms and AI correct, fair and equitable? It might seem that logical and intelligent algorithms are more objective than potentially biased humans, but according to Coded Bias, this is a poor assumption. As the film opens, Joy Buolamwini, a computer researcher at the MIT Media Lab, discovers that standard facial recognition software, as used by police and in other applications, does not properly recognize her own dark-skinned face.
The film shows other examples of algorithms that fail to make correct or meaningful judgments, or undermine privacy, civil rights and racial equity: improperly rating an experienced, award-winning teacher in Houston; racially profiling ordinary citizens for police scrutiny in the U. K.; and enabling the Chinese government to closely scrutinize and evaluate its citizens in their daily lives. Coded Bias was in production before Robert Williams, an African American man, was unjustifiably arrested and jailed in Detroit because of an incorrect identification by facial recognition software. This case perfectly illustrates the dangers Coded Bias points out, but the film ends on a hopeful note as Buolamwini and other activists testify before the U. S. Congress, seeking legislation to control the use of algorithms.
Coded Bias (Dir: Shalini Kantayya)
A third long documentary, The Last Artifact (2019, USA, Jaime Jacobsen and Ed Watkins, 56 minutes) describes a less dramatic but significant interaction between society and science, specifically metrology, the science of measurement. This underlies much of how we and society function, from measuring the area of a rug to setting manufacturing standards and underpinning quantitative science. The film explains how all measurements trace back to universal standards for the physical fundamentals of length, time and mass. The first two are now defined through the speed of light, and the frequency of the light emitted by a cesium atom. These are constants of nature embedded in the fabric of the universe: but the standard kilogram mass had remained as “the last artifact,” a human-made hunk of platinum-iridium alloy kept in Paris.
Then, in 2011, scientists began to consider relating the standard mass instead to another fundamental quantity, the constant denoted by h that Max Planck derived in 1900 as the basic unit of quantum mechanics. This would link all physical units to inherent properties of nature, a dream of Planck’s as well. The film shows the ultra-precise measurements that determined h to within 13 parts per billion, ending with the vote in 2019 by an international scientific commission to adopt this final part of a new standard system of units. As one metrologist says in the film, this was no less an accomplishment than taking on the task of defining objective reality.
Many shorter entries at ISFF13 make their own important points, especially when viewed in thematic groupings. For example, 75 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, and 34 years after the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, three short films show in varied ways how the terrors of unleashed nuclear energy still linger.
The documentary La Bobine 11004 (Reel 11004, 2019, France, Mirabelle Fréville, 19 minutes), traces back directly to Hiroshima. After Japan surrendered, the U. S. government sent in teams to film the effects of the bomb, including a “reel 11004” shot in Hiroshima on April 5, 1946. According to director Fréville, this was kept secret until she found and edited it to make La Bobine 11004. Several sources such as the recent book The Atomic Doctors confirm that the U. S. worked to suppress evidence that the bomb’s radiation greatly harmed Japanese civilians. The original newsreel-like footage in La Bobine 11004 shows many Japanese children and adults being treated for burn-like lesions and other injuries. Most memorably, it shows a woman with disfigured arms and face looking directly and stoically into the camera.
La Bobine 11004 (Dir: Mirabelle Fréville)
The Atomic Adventure (2019, France, Loic Barché, 26 minutes) fictionalizes France’s 1961 test of its fourth atomic bomb. We follow seven soldiers sent to measure radioactivity after the detonation in the Algerian desert. Unaware of the risks, they josh each other on the way to the site, but their Captain, an older war veteran, is wary. The film dramatizes actual blunders in France’s atomic testing as it shows the soldiers, wearing flimsily inadequate protective gear, become exposed to fallout when the wind shifts from its predicted direction. To protect them, the Captain buries them under the desert sand, but sees that the radiation has already doomed him. Perhaps also not wanting to participate in this new nuclear age, he walks into the falling radioactive dust. One of the soldiers also dies, underscoring the tragedy of nuclear war at every level.
The Atomic Adventure (Dir: Loic Barché)
A more recent nuclear catastrophe inspired the documentary Pripyat Piano (2020, Czech Republic, Eliška Cílková, 18 minutes). The 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident in what is now Ukraine widely spread radioactive material and forced the evacuation of 50,000 people from the city of Pripyat. The film memorializes their lost homes and way of life by showing the deteriorating pianos left behind. Mingled with scenes of emergency crews frantically coping with the disaster, we see abandoned upright pianos leaning against walls, on their backs and with exposed insides, and a grand piano still gracing a wrecked auditorium. Some pianos produce only thuds but others are somewhat playable. Their musical sounds, and background songs from former Pripyat citizens, speak to resilience in the human spirit and human culture. Resilient too is nature itself, as exterior shots show lush forest greenery slowly reclaiming the abandoned city.
Pripyat Piano (Dir: Eliška Cílková)
Two other short films examine our dependence on and our inability to escape the world of digital devices and of information steadily flowing in, but also being taken from and about us. Story (2019, Poland, Jolanta Bańkowska, 5 minutes) comments on our digital lives through amusing animation. The film’s hero wakes up, smartphone in hand, to a day full of the digital and the virtual. We see a mother and her child on a swing each pull out a smartphone; a restaurant where each diner is typing on a laptop; and a man play an invisible virtual reality piano, then bow to his online audience. VR also enables a man to play virtual fetch, until his angry dog leaps for his throat. In the funniest and most telling scene, several men in a commuter train each raptly stares at his phone. Suddenly the head of one of them bursts into flame, but the only response is that one of the others raises his own phone to take a video. Does Story remind you of anyone you know?
Story (Dir: Jolanta Bankowska)
The short drama FREYA (2020, Canada, Camille Hollet-French, 17 minutes) richly imagines a near future dominated by digital control of people. As 30-something Jade (Rhona Rees) returns home, she is greeted by the pleasant female voice of FREYA (Federally Regulated Enquiry and Yield Assistant). FREYA is a ubiquitous and powerful government AI that constantly gathers information (“rate your work day”) and gives directives (“don’t drink too much wine”). Sex too has been digitized beyond today’s Tinder, as Jade chooses a lover from the menu of men and their anatomies in the Nookie Bookie app. She enjoys her one-night stand, but is dismayed when FREYA, tracking her physiology, announces that she is pregnant and will be under added scrutiny in a society that bans abortion. Jade however miscarries, freeing her from unwanted motherhood and inspection but leaving her emotionally drained and realizing that there is no escaping FREYA.
FREYA (Dir: Camille Hollet-French)
The eight films I’ve covered give only a partial cross-section of what ISFF13 offered. The remaining films are well worth seeing however possible on Labocine or elsewhere, and maybe not too long from now, again in the company of fellow fans of science cinema.
About the author
Sidney Perkowitz, the Emeritus Candler Professor of Physics, Emory University, writes often about science in film. His latest books are Physics: A Very Short Introduction and Real Scientists Don’t Wear Ties. He’s at work on Science Sketches.