All across the boroughs of Manhattan, Imagine Science Films presented an astounding selection of sci-fi films during its 12th annual festival, beginning on October 18th and ending on the 25th. This non-profit powerhouse was founded in 2008 at Rockefeller University by geneticist and filmmaker Alexis Gambis. The main goal of the organization– and of Alexis, himself– over these past twelve years has been to promote dialogue between the science and film communities.
This year, the organization chose to wrap this dialogue in the theme of “Emergence”, which they describe as “the ability of simple parts acting together to give rise to complicated properties unobserved in the parts alone, whether on the level of chemical reactions, or universal social change.”
Honeysuckle sat back as this theme came to life in the screening entitled Eyes on Elsewheres, hosted at Brooklyn’s own UnionDocs. This screening block featured three short films that focus on, and attempt to answer, the question: “How do we observe that which we can not experience directly?”
The screening began with “The Sasha”, a short film produced by Maria Molina Peiró in 2019 that focuses on the astronaut Charles Duke. Its 21-minute runtime depicts Duke’s 1972 mission to capture as many high resolution photos of the moon and its surroundings as possible. Through this story, Peiró explores how these space images come to effect the human perspective and its struggle to fully grasp temporal and spatial limitations. The film employs various images taken from space, historical video clips, 3D animations, and many more editing techniques to drive home its message of exploration in tandem with a vast unknowing.
The second, and shortest, film created by Semiconductor, was titled “The View From Nowhere”. This 13-minute single-channel moving image work explored man’s place in nature by examining the science and technology of CERN, a particle physics lab in Geneva. Semiconductor was interested in capturing how we experience the material nature of the physical world through the lens of science and technology. Using footage shot in the workshops, and discussions about theoretical physics, the filmmaker questions how creating tools that have helped humans explore past the human experience can affect our perception of reality.
The last 55 minutes of the screening was reserved for “The Other Side of Mars”, a film produced by Minna Långström. It explores the world of Vandi Verma, a NASA roboticist and Curiosity rover driver. The filming occurred mostly in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena where Verma and her team navigate the terrain of Mars with a rover. The film moves through a series of narrators explaining the work they do on the Mars rover, the data they have collected throughout the years, and how they go about ensuring they get the best data possible. Over the course of the film, Långström explores how these scientists are able to take the visual data gathered from the rover and use it as scientific evidence. From the data they have collected, they create extraterrestrial and mind-bogglingly accurate maps of Mars’ terrain. The question Långström won’t stop asking is: “Do images reflect reality, or do they shape it?”
Following the screening, Minna Långström and geologist Dawn Summer, who is featured in much of “The Other Side of Mars”, stuck around for a Q&A about the films. Långström was inspired to create her film after seeing topics like the Mars rover or the reality of photography discussed separately in films, but never addressed together. She also felt an obligation to create the film, as she was in a position with more access to information than other filmmakers. Långström had known Verma, the NASA roboticist, from previous work in the states, and they had kept in touch over the years.
The hardest part of creating the film, according to Långström, was gaining permission from NASA to film on location. They waited for about a year and half for permission, a gap that halted the progress of this film, but that gave Långström time to brainstorm future projects– ones that she hasn’t yet commented on.
Långström also fielded questions about the creative aspects of film editing, as compared to the scientific information included. Her use of holographics in some scenes are meant to emphasize the unreliability of images and their dubious authenticity, a problem discussed across all three films.
Mira Calix, a favorite artist of Långström’s, scored the film. Långström informed the audience that she had always loved Mira’s music and enjoyed a personal relationship with the artist, so for the film, she was able to not only use some of Mira’s released music, but to use original tracks that were specially recorded.
Dawn Summer, a geologist for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, has had a passion for studying our planet’s history since she discovered the field of study as an undergraduate. She has worked around the world studying the history of the Earth and learning what the ecosystem looked like in the past. Her role in the Mars project is to categorize the images the rover takes and study them, to parse out the ecological history of the planet.
As Dawn spoke, she emphasized the unreliability of the rover, which is also discussed in “The Other Side of Mars”. She and other scientists sometimes struggle to fully grasp objects that the rover captures because only one or two sides of the object are actually imaged. This unreliability has not stopped them from becoming very familiar with the Gale Center, the location on Mars that Dawn and her team chose to land the rover when it initially was sent to the planet.
Throughout the Q&A, Dawn was asked about the possibility of humans living on Mars in the upcoming years. She painstakingly emphasized that humans are years away from that undertaking, stating that it would be almost impossible for our bodies to adapt, and definitely impossible to ever return to Earth again. Her strong veto of this space venture prompted a member of the audience to ask, “Then what is the point?”
“It’s something that inspires [the world].” Dawn responded. She explained how [NASA’s] technology has allowed them to intellectually reach Mars, but in the meantime, “The robotics [are] us exploring, just not with our bodies.”
To look more into these films, and equally enlightening ones, you can visit the Imagine Science Films site to explore similar content. If you would like to submit a film for next year’s festival, submissions will open in February of 2020.