Sidney Perkowitz November 2 2023

Science New Wave XVI Festival: What’s Important in 2023


Unlike the 2021 and 2022 festivals, SNW XVI isn’t occurring under the shadow of an overwhelming COVID pandemic, which science and medicine have now brought under a degree of control. But science and tech are still essential components of other problems that we face, either by solving them or causing them. That’s reflected in the theme of SNW XVI: “(art)ificial,” a compound word that immediately brings to mind artificial intelligence (which is beginning to look like a major issue for society). But it is really meant to point to the human creativity that manifests itself in art – here, the art of filmmaking – and science, which inevitably affects the world around us and our vision of it. It shouldn’t be surprising then that many of the films shown in SNW XVI are driven by current issues.

As in previous festivals, the films broadly sample current independent science cinema. According to SNW XVI data, the 64 documentaries, fictional dramas, animated and experimental films selected this year come from over 35 countries. The films are directed, written, and produced by people of diverse geographic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. And judging by the names of the directors, they are nearly equally divided between men and women. With this world-wide representation of filmmakers, we should expect the films to reflect truly important concerns.

Certainly that’s the case for our biggest global problem, climate change. Nearly a third of the films deal with climate change or associated issues such as global catastrophe, the sustainable use of resources, geoengineering and ecological impact, and the interactions between humanity and the natural world. Among these, I found five films that illuminate these aspects in varied ways.

TerraForma (Laurence Durkin and Kevin Brennan, Ireland, 62 min, 2023) opens with shots of waves surging and breaking against jagged rocks. A voice-over tells us that this is Ascension Island, formed by a volcanic eruption from the seabed which produced magma that cooled into a small rocky speck in the middle of the south Atlantic Ocean. This barren place lacked water and could not support life. But starting in 1847, British botanist Joseph Hooker made it more habitable by shipping in trees and bushes from elsewhere. Planted atop the island’s Green Mountain, they held moisture, increased rainfall, and enhanced the soil. The result still exists today: a flourishing ecosystem that the film shows with images of lush forest growth on the mountaintop and other greenery lower down.

This is a small-scale example of terraforming, the science fiction idea of altering a whole planet such as Mars to make it Earth-like for humans; and the real-world idea of geoengineering our planet to combat global warming. In the film, environmental author Fred Pearce and other experts use the greening of Ascension to draw lessons for bigger terraforming projects. One is to be sure of our priorities, so as to really terraform to a better world. Another, novel to me, is to view the idea of “nature” more broadly. On Earth, nature includes living things; elsewhere, it may only be non-living “magnificent desolation,” as astronaut Buzz Aldrin described the Moon’s surface, which should be preserved, not remade. The comments are interspersed with images of the mutual interaction of humanity and Ascension Island. TerraForma inspires viewers to think about humanity’s place in nature, and our assumed entitlement to changing it.

TerraForma (Laurence Durkin and Kevin Brennan, Ireland, 62 min, 2023)

Hubris (Jules de Niverville, Canada, 30 min, 2023) deals with humanity and the environment in a different way. Self-described as an “experimental docu-narrative” about climate change, it uses pure dance to present the feelings of three people caught up in the unnaturalness of modern life. Starting with images of trees and streams, the film quickly focuses on their antithesis, a huge hydroponic greenhouse. As a worker tends the plants, his movements become a violent dance that mimics a mechanical robot arm placing seedlings into channels, which itself goes berserk, randomly flinging plants and water. Then we meet a woman working in a recycling center. Intent on dismantling electronic equipment, she soon explodes into extreme dance-like acrobatics and becomes entangled in a nest of hanging cables. The third person, a researcher, works with lab equipment, then suddenly looks lost and panicked. She frantically dances, breaks a test-tube, and collapses against a lab bench.

As these events alternate with other scenes of nature, more workers in industrial sites and within an office building break into forceful and athletic dances that become destructive. The destruction spreads until we see a plume of smoke and falling debris from the office skyscraper. Finally we see two young people who are watching the chaos look into the camera, followed by images of trees, a forest trail, and a glen. There the film ends. Its powerful dancing with a pulsating musical score, interleaved with serene pictures of nature, provide a compelling image of a society that needs to change its ways to deal with climate change.

Hubris (Jules de Niverville, Canada, 30 min, 2023)

Human Resources (Ressources Humaines, Trinidad Plass Caussade, Titouan Tillier, and Isaac Wenzek, France, 4 min, 2023) initially seems light-hearted with its charmingly fuzzy stop-motion animated human figures. Middle-aged Andy and a friend who will film him arrive at the recycling office, which features shelves of varied items such as a clock and a hat. Wanda, a clerk, checks his paperwork that shows official approval of his recycling choice of a chair. This, she says, will sell quickly. He undresses, and standing inside a small knee-high box slowly becomes shorter as whirring machinery slices his body into fluffy portions from the feet up and carries them into an inner area. He’s not in pain and talks to Wanda as she takes his photo and puts it on a memorial wall. As Andy finally completely vanishes and his friend leaves, we realize that in this perhaps post-catastrophe world, “human resources” means recycled people. The animated film White Plastic Sky (Műanyag égbolt, Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó, Hungary and Slovakia, 111 min, 2023) also deals with human recycling.

Human Resources (Ressources Humaines, Trinidad Plass Caussade, Titouan Tillier, and Isaac Wenzek, France, 4 min, 2023)

White Plastic Sky (Műanyag égbolt, Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó, Hungary and Slovakia, 111 min, 2023)

Another kind of recycling appears in 68.415 (Stefano Blasi and Antonella Sabatino, Italy, 20 min, 2022). In a future of food scarcity, Giulia is among the few accepted by the Zigle Clinic, where special surgery enables a person to still eat well. Hesitantly joining the regimented life at Zigle, she learns that its method enables people to digest food made from the environmentally indestructible plastic infesting the world, such as polyurethane processed into steak. She is somewhat reassured; but then, seeing that a supposedly successful graduate of the Zigle program has died, she flees the clinic. Trudging weak and hungry through a field of plastic debris, she despairingly realizes that now her only and fatal choice is to start eating a plastic cup. A final on-screen comment reveals that this is not entirely fantasy: a real academic study has shown that world-wide, each person swallows up to 68,415 plastic microparticles a year.

68.415 (Stefano Blasi and Antonella Sabatino, Italy, 20 min, 2022)

Another concern that the festival echoes is the rise of AI, with the dawning realizations that for good or ill, it does some things better than people; and that AI and digital techniques can exactly copy human faces, bodies, and voices so the avatars are hardly distinguishable from real living people. Several festival films examine these possibilities.

I Thought I Was Hearing Citizens (Manu Luksch and Mukul Patel, Austria, 6 min, 2023), opens with a dark-haired woman facing us and making repetitive head movements while uttering apparently random syllables. Then, while a background voice discusses the exploitation of people’s data, other people of all types appear. Brief captions explain that these are AI avatars generated from human actors, now becoming widely used. The avatars look real except for a slight hesitancy in speech and some bodily stiffness. They talk about the need for data protection rights in human-machine interactions, using comments from a 2019 roundtable discussion among real people, yet ironically the avatars themselves explicitly show the use – or misuse – of human data. As it ends, the film notes that AI can also produce fake persons who “have never existed outside an algorithm” and asks, “Does it matter that there is no body behind?”

I Thought I Was Hearing Citizens (Manu Luksch and Mukul Patel, Austria, 6 min, 2023)

Uncanny Me (Katharina Pethke, Germany, 45 minutes, 2022) asks similar questions about the interaction between real person and digital avatar in a more personalized way. We meet Lale, a glamorous young model, as she gracefully poses at photo shoots. Her career is successful but grueling. She works hard to keep herself beautiful and her body toned, and the constant displacement of travel necessary for her shoots is wearing too. Finally, with some trepidation, she decides to generate an exact digital copy of herself to help with  the burden of modeling. An impressive array of cameras records her body from every angle as she poses, down to the level of details such as a scar on one knee. Her facial expressions are scanned too.

All this is assembled into an animated 3D digital clone that can perfectly stand in for Lale as a model and ease her life, but she thinks of the strangeness of watching her avatar never age while in reality she grows older. Her agent too asks about misuse: what if her digital clone were copied and turns up in an online sex scene? And when Lale at last comes face to face with her clone on screen, she hardly knows how to react. The film does not answer these questions, but watching an appealing young woman become confused between her real and avatar selves underlines the complexities arising as we enter an age of virtual beings.

Uncanny Me (Katharina Pethke, Germany, 45 minutes, 2022)

A different side of AI and digital technology is implied in the hand-drawn animated film E6-D7 (Eno Swinnen, Belgium, 16 min, 2023). E6 is a smart and skillful quasi-humanoid surgical robot. It – or better, he – also defeats people at chess, until one day he loses to an android in the shape of an attractive woman. She is E6’s upgraded surgical replacement, D7, and although she tells him “I contain you within me,” he becomes sidelined. But when her left arm malfunctions, it is replaced by E6’s arm. Perhaps grateful for this gift, she visits E6 as he sits idle and says in binary code, “My love for you is absolute.” E6, perhaps also bonded by the gift and the expanded world her presence has shown him, replies “I love you too.” AI beings may someday feel emotion; or the emotion might exist only in human imaginations as we anthropomorphize our artificial creations.

E6-D7 (Eno Swinnen, Belgium, 16 min, 2023)

Two other films show the visual power of AI but also that of the human mind and hand. Pink Noise (Bruit Rose, Martin Wiklund and Arthur Lemaitre, France, 2 min, 2022) is described as an interpretation of life growing in a mother-to-be, expressed in AI-assisted animation. It begins with images of swirls and spreading waves in the void, in water, in clouds and forests, that stimulate growth and change. A fantastically colored bird flies through the scene, followed by other creatures such as a running leopard. Finally cosmic swirls coalesce into a small figure. It is a human fetus, floating in space much like the Star Child at the end of the classic film 2001 (1968). This combination of human and AI effort has created a short piece full of arresting color and detail.

Pink Noise (Bruit Rose, Martin Wiklund and Arthur Lemaitre, France, 2 min, 2022)

Yet, another animated piece, Beautiful Figures (Soetkin Verstegen, Belgium, 4 min, 2022), is equally attention-grabbing, apparently without AI assistance and only selective coloring in a black-and-white format. Described as “thoughts rippling” over the pages of a notebook used in an artists-in-labs program, the drawing style is indeed dynamic with lines that subtly waver or stand firm. Small outline figures of a man and woman wade and swim, and interact with spheres that come and go as networks of lines and nodes do the same. Human hands appear too, wielding a hypodermic needle or a drawing pen. We can also read words such as “neocortex” and “medical ethics,” suggesting that these were biomedical or neuroscience labs. But even without exactly knowing the origin of the rippling thoughts, this tiny animated universe is continually gripping.

Beautiful Figures (Soetkin Verstegen, Belgium, 4 min, 2022)

If there are lessons to learn from this sampling of offerings from SNW XVI, one is that independent makers of science films are deeply concerned about the looming menace of climate change, as well they should be along with the general public. The independent film community is also tackling AI in society, in the best possible way: by questioning its outcomes while using it to enhance creativity. These two topics will surely reappear in SNW XVII, maybe with better answers than we now have but still being explored in film.

About the author

Sidney Perkowitz is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics Emeritus, Emory University. Among his latest books are Science Sketches: The Universe From Different Angles, and Physics: A Very Short Introduction. His writing recently received the Andrew Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics for “bridging the physics community to the arts and humanities.”