When uttered in the same breath, the words “science” and “cinema” will more often than not elicit images of light saber swordplay, viscous green creatures and wildly inconceivable viruses.
However, Imagine Science Film Festival director and founder Alexis Gambis has his own notions about the unique combination, potentially explosive for both scientists and moviemakers alike. The Parisian transplant took some time to chat with MM about the film festival, set for October 15 – 24 in the Big Apple.
Elissa Suh (MM): You are both a moviemaker and a scientist. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Alexis Gambis (AG): I studied both biology and film when I was and undergrad. I’m originally from Paris but I came to study at Bard College in upstate New York, a small liberal arts school which allowed me to study theater and film and also biology. I ended up majoring in biology with a heavy focus in film as well.
Also my parents were both artists; my mom’s a filmmaker and my dad’s a painter, so I had this artist streak in me.
MM: What led to the creation of Imagine Science Films? Was the festival part of the initial creation of the organization as well?
AG: After I went back to France to do a master’s in biology and came back to New York to do a Ph.D. at Rockefeller University, in my second year I became the coordinator the Rockefeller Film Series. The goal when I took over was to show science films to scientists and have them discuss the accuracy of science in the film, how to make it credible, how to portray science in an accurate way that would make it compelling in a film; avoiding stereotypes of a sort of a “bad science film.”
From there I decided it would be a good idea to contact other schools and see whether or not they would be interested in hosting screenings, and that’s sort of how the idea came about.
Last year I started contacting NYU. Actually, I contacted NYU film school because I finished my Ph.D. and I’m going to NYU Tisch film school in September. So I contacted NYU, New York Academy of Sciences, CUNY Graduate Center and everybody was very interested in this idea of a science film festival in New York, just because it doesn’t exist and so they were all on board.
The idea was also to show science films in different types of venues around the city to reach out to as many different types of people as possible. Last year it was in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. We had screenings at NYU, Rockefeller University and CUNY. We had some venues in bars as well. There’s a bar called Union Hall in Park Slope and we showed a film there.
The film festival became kind of a big deal and we got a lot of coverage. We started forming a team of people and then I decided to create a nonprofit organization and we slowly built the team. Last year we also got Nature Magazine, one of the premier science magazines, to [sponsor] two awards: The Nature Scientific Merit Award and the Nature People’s Choice Award.
This year we are probably five times bigger; we are associated with Tribeca Cinemas and have many, many sponsors, both in films and science. We also have the Mayor’s Office of Film and Television’s support. It’s the second year and it’s growing. We have many more submissions as well. We have 200 films, so it’s really exciting.
MM: What are the entries like? Are they primarily from moviemakers who like science, or scientists who want to make movies?
AG: Primarily it’s non-scientists who submit films, but we are trying to get more scientists. It makes sense because scientists don’t have time to make films, so we are trying to encourage them by giving out awards. The Scientist Award will be given to the best film made by a scientist.
The idea is to have both scientists and non-scientists submit films; we have no bias. We just try to encourage people to make films about science. The goal is also to incorporate scientists in narrative filmmaking. A lot of people send us documentaries because, when you think science, you think Discovery Channel; but we are more interested in fiction.
Some of the films are absolutely amazing and we also have films from all around the world. We have a film about cloning; it’s called The Clone Returns Home. It’s a Japanese film and it was at Sundance and it’s mind-boggling, simply amazing.
If there is a love story, a drama or a thriller and you incorporate science into it, it’s easier for the public to digest instead of a lecture.
MM: You’ve made clear what it is you look for in the films thematically, but are there any logistical specifications such as running time?
AG: We accept both shorts and features. I believe we are going to show about 25 to 30 shorts throughout the festival and five feature films. We currently have about 200 short films and 20 feature films, so we have to narrow that down.
MM: What can attendees of the festival expect? To be entertained? To learn?
AG: That is the mission exactly: To be entertained and to learn at the same time. When we watch films, obviously it has to be entertaining and compelling, but there has to be a little bit of learning, too. There has to be the right amount of science, not too much and not too little.
MM: How do you feel about science fiction?
AG: We also accept science fiction, but it has to be based on some credible idea, not like, I don’t know, The Day After Tomorrow. A good film, for example, would be Gattaca. Gattaca would totally be a plausible future, with genetic discrimination. Those types of films are good.
MM: What do niche festivals like this offer moviemakers?
AG: Science intersects with so many things like culture and politics. It is a niche film festival, but it still hits on such global and international issues, and I think it really brings the science community into film; a whole new community.
I think it’s more interesting to have people with different backgrounds making films. It’s funny because when I applied to film schools, I applied to the American Film Institute, but for some reason they didn’t like the fact that I had a science background. At Tisch, I feel that the people accepted come from very different backgrounds. Some of them haven’t even made films before. There are architects and people who have been in the Peace Corps and I always find it interesting.
MM: What are you looking most forward to at the 2009 festival?
AG: We are having the opening night at Tribeca Cinemas and I’m looking really forward to that. We’re not set yet on the film, but it might be the Japanese film that I mentioned, The Clone Returns Home.
We also have the world premiere screening of a film called Quantum Quest. It’s sort of an animated space exploration with the voices of Amanda Peet and Samuel L. Jackson, and it’s directed by Harry Kloor, who’s involved with “Star Trek.” And this movie’s been in the making for, I think, six or seven years, so we’re very excited to have the world premiere. We’re trying to build a panel. The director will be there and we’re trying to get some of the actors who did the voices.
The short films are really fantastic—I’m looking forward to all those screenings. We have films that range from love stories to dramas to thrillers, but they all tap into elements of science. We have this film called Ginger, for example, about this redhead boy who realizes that redheads are becoming extinct, and he goes to these labs and starts asking scientists what it means to be a redhead and he starts flirting with girls—redhead girls—because he wants to make sure his species doesn’t die. It’s fantastic and you learn, too.
We’re also excited about all the sponsors, and growing and becoming one of the main festivals in New York.
MM: What do you expect for ISFF in the future?
AG: It’s good that you mention that because, besides the festival, we’re also starting to develop our production company aspect. The idea would be to produce films that have scientific content. What we foresee is that, through the film festival, we are going to give out these filmmaker funds to filmmakers who we think are especially talented, and we will help them make science feature films.
In terms of the film festival, we expect it to expand. Right now all of our screenings are in the evening and we would like for it to be a full day film festival for 10 days.
We are still trying to get into as many neighborhoods as possible right now. We’ve covered parts of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, but we still have the Bronx and other areas.
For more information on Imagine Science Film Festival, visit www.imaginesciencefilms.com.