Sundance Indie Filmmakers Take on The Internet and the Planet’s Ongoing Destruction

By JoAnn M. Valenti, Ph.D./Emerita Professor

Recent headline-making discoveries coupled with international box-office hits would seem a sure demonstration of public interest in films about science, especially space exploration. Not quite at Robert Redford’s annual, snowy, mountain high Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah (USA). As has become the case at this prestigious independent film fest, only a handful of the 123 features selected from over 12,000 submissions offered a science or technology issue or included a science, engineer or tech character in the cast as required for the Alfred P. Sloan Award for science in a narrative film screened at the festival.

Operation Avalanche

Space made news across the globe, particularly with the discovery of Planet 9. Mass media outlets, especially in the U.S. and Russia, focused on repeated launch and landing attempts as well as on the successful return of two astronauts after nearly a year in space. Space science enthusiasts are predicting the planet could have a backup population of humans on Mars within the not too distant future. Yet the only space focused film at Sundance, Operation Avalanche, was a tale of a scam on the United States’ NASA space agency and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. In a documentary about a faked documentary, Canadian filmmakers even contrived a convincing sounding name for a U.S. government failed project. Other films—or lack of—with viable science content or characters simply didn’t suggest much attention to predictions of what science issues were on the public’s minds. Rather, the winning focus for indie filmmakers was a look back at the beginnings of today’s most dire global warming contributors.

Embrace of the Serpent

The Sloan science award went to an already successful feature film inspired by the original journals of two scientists exploring the Amazonian rainforest. Embrace of the Serpent had earlier screened at film festivals including Cannes, and earned an Academy Award nomination in the foreign film category; it did not win the Oscar. The Spanish, English sub-titled film follows German anthropologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and American biologist Richard Evans Schultes, who independently trekked through the Colombian Amazon, both guided by Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman. In a significant departure from other tales from the Amazon, Columbian filmmaker Ciro Guerra tells this multi-generational story from the point of view of the native shaman. The story unfolds over a 40 year period, each of the two researchers developing a friendship with the same shaman guide while traveling through treacherous territory in search of a plant (yakruna) considered sacred by the indigenous people, and of value to the exploiting rubber industry. The film describes decades of cultural and environmental devastation wrought by industry and missionaries while the government looked only toward development income. The shaman narrator is the sole survivor of his culture. Guerra was asked, “Can man, through science and art, transcend brutality?” He answered, “Some men did.” The Sloan Science Award includes $20,000, hopefully an incentive for more filmmakers to feature scientists and tell real science stories.

When Two Worlds Collide

A documentary, therefore not a contender for the required Sloan feature genre, When Two Worlds Collide from Peru, tells the Amazon environmental holocaust story from a current point of view. Two filmmakers, straight out of college in pursuit of a short film, ended up spending several years following an indigenous leader and the people he represents who are resisting the ruin of Amazonian lands by big business. The first time independent filmmakers found they had a larger story at hand. They interview country officials including the President and the Minister of Environment for whom development trumps protecting a culture, valuable habitat, a sustainable environment and the climate of the planet. The film captures the despair and determination of the indigenous leader as he is exiled, returns to face 20 years in prison and continue the struggle. This contemporary story with deaths on both sides of the battle reflects the ongoing demise of the planet. Calling native lands “a waste”, the same president accused of law-breaking and oil-lusting for personal profit is up for reelection this year. This is one of the many untold big science stories not making headlines outside of South America. Encouragingly, as I write this review, Reuters is reporting that an indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon has taken at least eight public officials hostage to demand help from the central government after an oil spill polluted their lands.

Documentary films  

Documentary films have offered more attention to science issues. Oscar- nominated filmmaker Josh Fox brought attention to the dangers of fracking in Gasland (Sundance 2010 winner) aired on HBO television.
Fox returned to Sundance this year with another game changing documentary: How To Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change). In the new doc Fox offers his personal answer to the despair brought on by the facts of climate change: Become “climate warriors.” He is currently on a world tour to encourage people everywhere to be actively involved in delaying the effects of global warming and pollution. HBO once again picked up this film to air in June. 

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Of more interest than space or rainforests to renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog and Web developer Sir Tim Berners-Lee: the Internet and technologically enhanced access to information through social media. Herzog, the Sloan science film award winner in 2005 for Grizzly Man, arrived in Park City with a very personal documentary interviewing cosmologists and others at the helm of the future of communication: Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Society, Herzog laments, depends on the Internet for nearly everything; we rarely step back and recognize its endless intricacies and unsettling omnipotence. His film is an exploration in a somewhat light hearted yet chilling examination of our rapidly interconnecting online lives in interviews with sometimes strange and often beguiling individuals ranging from Internet pioneers to victims of wireless radiation. (He pointed out in a later interview that he “does not do interviews” rather, “I have conversations.”) The film weaves together a complex portrait of our brave new world as Herzog describes the Internet as “one of the biggest revolutions we as humans are experiencing,” but tempers his enthusiasm with the dark side: horror stories from victims of online harassment and Internet addiction. The Internet, the film argues, is a war enabler. Meta data and the Sandia Labs in the U.S. for example are huge cyber targets for hackers. In an interview with U.S. SpaceX founder Elon Musk who suggest his goal is to establish life on other planets—“just in case”—Herzog offers to go on a one way ticket. The Web, Herzog suggests, is the Internet dreaming and warns that a new morality and culture is on deck. The Internet, he says, is the worst enemy of critical thinking. The Internet, he suggested, should be a tool for science and communication, not for propelling one’s self.

For Everyone.NET

In a somewhat similar but more optimistic vein, World Wide Web creator Sir Berners-Lee appeared at an invitation-only, off the festival Main St. site to present his Ford Foundation supported documentary: For Everyone.NET. He called his creation “an altruistic endeavor.” The documentary describes his goal as an exercise in examining the Web’s democratic potential, enabling people to be broadcasters, preserving diverse cultures. “The Web is our new world,” he said, his focus on saving net neutrality as governments attempt to gain control over access and content. “Individuals can pull the world together,” he argues. His passion is to keep the Web for everyone everywhere for free. He sees commercial services subsidizing content as a threat. The infrastructure needs to be open he argues, but in recognizing international differences in defining “neutrality,” he suggests states can regulate, perhaps balance freedom of access to information with accountability. A conversation between Herzog and Berners-Lee would be worth noting. 

As he has done every year, Sundance founder actor/director/environmentalist Redford stressed the value of documentaries and reminded journalists that the festival’s intent is to spotlight areas not getting attention. “Out of independence comes diversity,” Filmmaker Mike Cahill, who has won the science award at Sundance twice (Another Earth  in 2011 and I Origins in 2014), and served as a juror for this year’s award, commented during a panel on “The Art of Getting Science Right” that, "Science for me is a new landscape of stories.” He added, “Everything science discovers on Wednesday that we didn't know on Tuesday becomes raw material for creativity.”

More on these topics:

Independent films communicating science at Sundance 2014 by JoAnn M. Valenti
Science at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival by JoAnn M. Valenti
The Bio:Fiction film festival: Sensing how a debate about synthetic biology might evolve by
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