Imagine Science Film Festival starts this week

If you’re in New York City or within driving distance, you’re in for a rare treat this week. Thursday is the opening night of the Imagine Science Film Festival, a two-week-long series of film screenings that celebrate science’s artistic side.

This is only the film festival’s second year, but it’s already attracted the attention of major sponsors. Last year the journal Nature co-sponsored the festival, and this year the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of rival journal Science, has taken the helm. Maybe it’s because of the festival’s unique approach to the genre of science film.

Unlike what you can expect to see on PBS NOVA or the Discovery Channel, these films aren’t out to teach a science lesson. ISFF’s founder, Alexis Gambis, says that it’s the only science film festival that doesn’t take the traditional approach.

“There are a few other science film festivals around the world, but the films they show are mostly documentaries meant for TV. They are very pedagogic,” Gambis said in an interview with New Scientist. “We’re trying to do something different.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson on ISFF from Imagine Science Films on Vimeo.

ISFF looks for films where science inspires the visuals, as in the short art film Magnetic Movie, (which I wrote about in an earlier post), or provides the plot, as in the comedy Chances Are, in which a romantically-uninitiated IT worker must use his knowledge of probability to track down a twenty-dollar bill that bears a cute math geek’s phone number. For a better sense of what to expect, take a glance at the program and at some of last year’s films, which are available on Vimeo. You can watch several in full, including “The Wormhole,” in which a young boy hears his physicist grandmother lecture on wormholes and begins searching for one in order to escape his grim family life, or “In vivid Detail,” in which a man’s rare perceptive disorder colors a budding romance. Or get a preview of this year’s festival with the trailer for In Search of Memory, a feature documentary about Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who will answer questions after the screening.

Gambis himself straddles the genres of science and film; fresh from a Ph.D. program in molecular biology and genetics, he’s now at the NYU film school. Before working on the festival festival, Gambis coordinated a film series at Rockefeller University, where he worked on his Ph.D. Called “Portrait of a Scientist,” the short film series follows several graduate students and scientists, uncovering the quirks of their daily lives, from what it’s really like to wear a lab coat to why a research scientist might find himself chasing pigeons.

Despite having studied science all his life, Gambis says he essentially woke up one day and realized he wanted to make films.

“I started taking film classes and showing up in my lab with cameras,” he says. “People looked at me like I was crazy.”

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