January 7th, 2010
The world of science has something new — the first significant film festival specifically for science-related films. It’s called The Imagine Science Film Festival. It occurs in October in New York City. Alexis Gambis is the Director of the festival. The first year they had roughly 500 audience members. This year they had 3500. It appears to be a smashing success, but there’s one catch. Putting together a film festival is an incredibly difficult endeavor (I know, I’m close friends with a co-founder of the Los Angeles Film Festival and I’ve heard his war stories). And I’m concerned that so far the science community neither knows the difficulty of creating such events, nor the long term importance of film festivals.
Let me begin with the importance of film festivals. To the outside world they may seem like just superfluous little parties where filmmakers get to take themselves too seriously. But if you yourself are a filmmaker, you come to see them as something totally different. You see them as your life’s blood, your raison d’etre, and your pot of gold at the end of very long journeys.
MY FIRST FILM FESTIVAL
Once upon a time I was a professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire with a latent passion for filmmaking that was just beginning to surface. It was 1990. I had spent most of the 1980’s living in Australia doing fieldwork on the Great Barrier Reef. I had gotten drunk with some of the craziest, most charismatic fishermen the planet has ever known and sat around the barbeque pit at Lizard Island, night after night, listening to these rogues tell their tales of sailing the high seas from Polynesia to Melanesia.
Fishermen are the greatest of storytellers, and their tales were so amazing that a fire had been lit inside of me. I was determined to get the stories of some fishermen — ANY fishermen — on film. In the summer of 1990 I hired a film crew, recruited two local New Hampshire lobster fishermen as performers, and ran my first experiment. The result was a five minute humorous short film about how to eat a lobster titled, “Lobstahs.”
The film wasn’t good. I knew that. I spent a surprisingly large amount of money on it (probably $5000). I showed it to friends. They thought it had a bit of charm, but nobody called it a masterpiece. And then I finally showed it to a former fellow marine biology grad student buddy whom we’ll call Ducky McScrooge. He watched it in his living room with me. When it ended, he said, “Randy, that is the WORST piece of shit I have ever seen in my life. Have you lost your mind? I sure hope you at least didn’t spend any money on this mess.”
I went home shattered. Good old Ducky. Never one to mince words. And the real problem was he was right — leave it to a scientist to be the only one brave enough to tell you the truth. So I decided it had been a big mistake, and that was it, I wasn’t meant to make films. I resolved to never make another film. For about two weeks. Until the day I opened my mailbox and found a big thick package from The New England Film and Video Festival, which I had totally forgotten I had entered the film into. I had won a “Judges Special Merit Award for Humor.”
A month later I took a dozen UNH grad students with me to the festival screening at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We were complete philistines entering a sacred chapel of film “art.” We thought it was hilarious how pretentious it all seemed, and that my knuckleheaded “Lobstahs” was going to be allowed into their company. The screening was packed. They played my film to the sold out audience of 300, just before an artsy feature film about a Japanese fisherman. And guess what happened. When the lights came down and my film began rolling, the entire audience roared with laughter. Suddenly I was given this boost of reassurance that maybe I wasn’t as hopeless of a filmmaker as Ducky had said, that maybe I should get involved with making films, and that the end results could even be enjoyable.
It’s 20 years later and I think sometimes about what would have happened if I hadn’t won that award.
I’m now in a position where I’ve made two feature films about controversies in the world of science — “Flock of Dodos” (about the anti-evolution movement) and “Sizzle” (about the anti-climate science movement). They are not perfect movies by any stretch. Both were plagued by limited funding. But they are both stories told in the voice of a scientist, and both present completely accurate and knowledgeable portraits of who scientists are (and of course the portraits are not totally flattering, but I will gladly argue with you that the realistic image they convey is more powerful in the long run than some airbrushed version of scientists as flawless super-humans).
SCIENCE MAGAZINE GIVES THE IMAGINE FILM FESTIVAL A BIG YAWN
So this is why I feel very passionate about what Alexis Gambis is doing with the Imagine Film Festival. And more importantly, here is why I feel a certain amount of annoyance and even contempt for what Science Magazine did in their December 4 issue when they published their two page review of this year’s festival. And yes, my film, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” was one of the films in the festival which they didn’t mention, but that’s not an issue for me as the film premiered the previous year and had already run its course.
I’m talking about the broader tone of the piece they wrote which seemed to proudly focus on their ability to retain their critical skills even in the presence of so many people having a good time. But what they fail to understand is that these efforts to communicate in new ways in the science world are only just getting started. They are still delicate little flames that are flickering, trying to take hold. They don’t need critical rigor so much right now, but rather nurturing. I know this from my two careers in science and cinema.
CONGRATULATIONS, YOU MADE A FILM
First off, before I go into a critique of what they wrote, I want to begin with a plea for understanding. Please listen to me. I spent 15 years as a scientist, and now 20 years in the film world. The two professions are not the same. Science requires a great deal of rigor and discipline. Film also needs that, but film … well, it’s just soooo damn hard to make a film. Seriously. In the film world, people honestly say to you, “Congratulations, you made a film.” And they mean it. JUST making a film is a major accomplishment.
Nobody ever said that in my science career. No one ever said, “Congratulations, you wrote a paper.” Yes, people do routinely say, “Congratulations, on getting your paper accepted for publication.” And similarly people say, “Congratulations, your film got accepted to a festival.” But you have to understand, people honestly do say, “Congratulations, you made a film.” That would be the equivalent in the science world of saying, “Congratulations, you wrote a first draft of a paper.”
It isn’t the same. For starters, there’s one huge factor present in filmmaking which is (at least in theory) scarce in science: IRRATIONALITY. If you go out on a two week research cruise, for the most part everyone knows their assignments, does their work, keeps to themselves, and like a bunch of well honed cogs in a machine, the work is tiring, but predictable. I know, I did it many times in the Caribbean and in Australia.
With filmmaking it’s different. There is built-in irrationality. If it’s a fiction film, you have the certifiable insanity of actors to deal with. If its a documentary, you have the irrationality of the people you’re trying to interview, who suddenly realize you need them and so begin naming all sort of irrational terms (if you want to see this taken to the ultimate you should watch the DVD extras of the documentary “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll” about the 60th birthday party for Chuck Berry where he out of the blue ends up demanding the producers show up with bags of money each morning in order for him to talk with them).
Imagine setting up all the glassware for a complicated experiment in your laboratory and then right at the start letting loose a flock of parrots, a pack of wild dogs, and three guys from the insane asylum. That’s kind of what it’s like to make movies. I can tell you stories. Believe me, I can definitely tell you stories.
IF YOU HATE THE WAY SCIENTISTS ARE PORTRAYED IN THE MEDIA, THEN YOU SHOULD LOVE FILM FESTIVALS
And yet it is vitally important to make films as a means of telling the stories of a community. Why? Let’s start with all the complaints about science and scientists not being portrayed accurately in the media. This is an age old dilemma. When I decided to get involved in filmmaking twenty years ago it was already a well known problem. One of my early sources of inspiration was an article in The Scientist on June 12, 1989 (I still have my copy of it) by Roslynn D. Haynes titled, “Literature Has Shaped The Public Perception of Science.” It was a great article that had a big impact on me back at square one.
More recently, in Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book, “Unscientific America,” they provided the latest summary of how scientists are treated in popular media. It’s not good. And that’s because most portrayals come not from scientists, but from the non-science community.
FILM FESTIVALS ARE FOR NURTURING FILMMAKERS, NOT SHREDDING THEM
So the antidote to poor image portrayal for a community is to take control of the image-making yourself. And that’s where a science film festival comes into the picture. The purpose of a film festival is to NURTURE young talent. Take a look at Sundance, Tribeca, Telluride — ALL of the major film festivals. They nurture, nurture, nurture the struggling young voices. My musical comedy film ended up being invited to Telluride in 1996 where it was shown in the “Filmmakers of Tomorrow Showcase” and even though it was a frickin’ student film filled with bad lighting and bad edits and bad acting and everything else, the audience watched it in context and was hugely supportive and appreciative. To have critiqued it in detail would have been ridiculous. It’s a student film for goodness sake.
The film world knows how hard it is to make films. And in response to this has developed a tradition of being supportive and nurturing of both filmmakers at film festivals, AND the people creating film festivals, because that, too, is incredibly difficult. It just takes a great deal of positive energy to make this stuff work. Trust me. I’ve had twenty years of making films. It sucks the life out of you. And the only way to endure it is through everyone collectively throwing all their positive energy into the mix, in a desperate hope that you can beat the odds and actually make a film.
And by the way, “science filmmaking” is a relatively new concept. As is the idea of a science film festival. Which means that most of the films being created at this point are the same as student films. And as such, they need to be viewed in the context of an emerging tradition — not a longtime established profession.
MANY COMMUNITIES NOW HAVE THEIR OWN FILM FESTIVALS — ITS TIME FOR THE SCIENCE COMMUNITY TO JOIN THE CROWD
So that’s why I found it distressing to read what the folks at Science did with the Imagine Science Film Festival. They seemed to approach the entire event with a mood of, “Is this thing even worth having?” That’s the tone throughout their review, and it really is exactly the message at the end of the review, where they basically said, “Not so far, but maybe next year.”
More specifically, their review (and they do refer to it as as a “review” in the footnotes) poses the rather snide question of, “Is this the way that science finally becomes cool?” and then never really answers it. In fact, the only real subjective assessment of the overall festival comes in the last paragraph with the summary statement of, “It was hard to say how the general public was affected by what had taken place.”
Come on. Everybody showed up, they watched some fun and interesting films, and a good time was had. Must you be so reserved and afraid to actually endorse something like this? It’s film, not reeee-search.
Back when I first started getting interested in filmmaking — in 1989 — I read a lengthy interview with Spike Lee. He told about how his early films (when he was still in film school at NYU) were spotted by major folks in the African American community. They reached out to him and basically said, “we’re tired of the way Hollywood portrays our community — you are a member of the African American community telling authentic stories with the voice of our community — we want to help you get on your feet.” These people nurtured his early filmmaking career by helping him find financing and other resources that are the endless struggle for filmmakers. And he paid them back by making important films like “Do the Right Thing,” that told the stories with the real voice of the community.
Similarly, when I was in film school at USC (1994-1997) there were a number of gay filmmakers in my class who were telling stories for the gay community. While we non-gay filmmakers were all struggling to get our films seen at film festivals, the gay filmmakers had their own separate venue with all the gay film festivals around the country.
In all my years of making films, there was never any sort of supportive community out there for me the way these folks have managed to create. I would have given anything, nearly twenty years ago, to have had a science film festival where I could have premiered my barnacle sex music video. It would have been such a perfect match. Instead it had to premiere at that same New England Film and Video Festival.
And guess what — you wanna see a supportive community? Last summer I premiered my feature film, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” at the Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival — the longest running gay film festival in the country. You wouldn’t believe how enthusiastic and supportive the folks were at the screenings and the parties. And they were appreciative as well as it was, as far as we know, the first global warming feature film to premiere at a gay film festival.
YOU’RE A LOUSY WALKER
So filmmaking is this incredibly difficult ordeal. Every film is a major journey, and if its any good, it involves a lot of very trying times. But as you’re slaving over making the film for week after week after month, the one vision you have way up ahead in the distance is the idea of hopefully eventually taking it to a film festival where everyone will gather together and celebrate the work you’ve done. Film festivals are meant to be celebrations of positivity and appreciation.
And that’s what simply bummed me out in reading the Science review of the Imagine Science Film Festival. All I could think was how many times in trying to get film projects going I’ve been subjected to the experience of sending a script to a potential investor and having the person reply, “I don’t have any money for you, but I do want to give you some criticism on your script.” Do you have any idea of how painful of a response that is. Everyone has opinions. That’s not what’s in short supply.
So we know the science world has image problems. But there exist solutions. Having at least one (if not many) vibrant, lively, and successful film festivals such as the ISFF is a vital part of bringing about the sort of changes to solve this problem. But before a film festival can get up to full fledged running speed where it can be coached and driven and disciplined, it HAS to at least start walking. And you know what it’s like trying to get a child to take the first steps. You don’t sit there saying, “You’re not putting your foot in the right place. I’m not sure this is even worth trying. I think you should maybe just give up on the whole notion of walking. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll be better at it tomorrow. We’ll see.”
Come on, science dudes. Filmmaking involves art. And artists, as much as it might make you scoff, need nurturing. It’s true.