About time: The Imagine Science Film Festival brings science to the people

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Lately, the viewing public seems to have developed an interest in science. Alfonso Cuaron’s space-based thriller Gravity was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won seven. The 1980s series Cosmos was rebooted by Fox and became a hit, raking in ratings and cementing the celebrity of nerd-star Neil deGrasse Tyson. And Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, slated for release in early November, is already getting some Oscar buzz. So it should come as no surprise that the Imagine Science Film Festival (ISFF), which kicked off its seventh annual run in Google’s New York City location on Friday night, is faring well, too.

The festival’s Artistic Director and Founder, Alexis Gambis, started the festival seven years ago during his doctoral studies at The Rockefeller University. “It was originally a film series on campus,” he told Fusion, for scientists “who were aggravated and frustrated by how science was depicted in film. The idea was to have scientists intimately involved.”


Gambis adds that the festival selects shorts and features that tell a captivating story — one that  makes science accessible to the public, and sparks debate over what a science film really is.


Gambis on stage at the opening night of this year's ISFF.

This year, the festival runs for one week and showcases 89 movies, most of them shorts. Each of the works is loosely related to this year’s theme—time—and each screening groups the films more tightly together. The opening night’s screening showed an “exploration in the 4th dimension”.

Gambis explains that the theme is selected once submissions are seen by the festival organizers. “We usually get a first wave of submissions, and we take the pulse of what’s happening in the media.” Gambis mentions the Higgs boson as a time-related subject that has captured the scientific imagination.

For the rest of us, time tends to brings to mind aging—and the ailments that come with it.


One filmmaker, Anthony Cerniello, addressed the topic of aging with his short “Danielle.” The film made a splash when it first hit YouTube in September 2013 and caught the eye of festival organizers this year. “Someone wrote me to tell me they liked the film and that this festival was coming up, and maybe it would be a good fit.” Cerniello told Fusion in an email.

Cerniello is not a scientist by trade, and “Danielle” is an experiment as much in editing as it is an exploration into the aging process. “There are no edits in Danielle, except at the end when it cuts to black… This long slow morph where it almost looks like nothing is happening is kind of a reaction to all of my editing experiences,” writes Cerniello. He adds, “I'm always thinking of short films that are one idea, one frame, no edits.”


ISFF seems to embrace aging as a sub-theme of the festival itself. This year's kickoff event featured a discussion of the science of art and time by a number of panelists, including Dr. Aubrey de Grey — the Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, which is working to find a solution to aging. De Grey, who has called the mainstream attitude towards getting old a “pro-aging trance,” was joined by Rachel Sussman, a visual artist whose most recent project is a vast photo essay of the world’s oldest living organisms.


Moderator Carl Zimmer talks to panelists (from left to right) Fernanda B. Viegas, Dr. Aubrey de Grey and Rachel Sussman during ISFF's opening panel.

Gambis says that as the festival grows (they received 1,000 submissions this year,) the organizers are trying to hold on to its DIY feel, and focus on creativity over expensive production. But ISFF has serious, mainstream backers — both Nature and Science sponsor the festival, and this is the second year Google has been involved. Eventually, Gambis hopes the festival will extend beyond New York City, and continue to blur the lines between art and science — an old idea again au courant.


“The birth of cinema started with science,” says Gambis. “They happened to split apart. We’re trying to emphasize the link and the similarities.”

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.