Real science at Sundance film festival collides with science deniers

By Jo Ann M. Valenti, Ph.D.

As the new year began, international media reported the soon to be inaugurated U.S. President’s plans to revive controversial oil pipelines, notifications to Environmental Protection Agency employees that the administration planned to instruct EPA's communications team to remove the website's climate change page, which contains links to scientific global warming research, as well as detailed data on emissions… and Robert Redford’s annual independent film festival began with a first ever “theme”: The New Climate.

The international, annual festival’s opening night premiere cued support for real science, discontent with “alternate facts” and demonstrations as over 46,000 film enthusiasts crowded into Park City, Utah’s mountain community. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel on opening night, followed over the 10-day fest by 13 other features and shorts aimed at connecting to the environment through storytelling and real facts, set the stage for a uniquely memorable Sundance. Overall, 188 feature and short films from 147 countries selected from 13,782 submissions were screened.

“Environment as a category came to us,” Redford said at the day one press conference. “We waited,” he said. “Staying focused on the importance of story has always been the [Sundance] goal.” Filmmakers have a podium, he added. What is on film can make a difference. “Presidents come and go,” he assured. “We don’t occupy ourselves with politics.”

Not surprisingly however, given the overlapping festival and controversial inauguration, Showtime Documentary Films presented Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of all Time at Sundance, then aired the doc on Showtime cable television the following week. As the title suggests, journalists offer a reflective look-back with unprecedented access from behind the scenes during the country’s primaries and through the unpredicted election of the controversial businessman and reality television show host to become the 45th President of the United States. On inaugural day, an estimated 8,000 Sundance attendees took time off from screenings to march down the festival city’s Main Street in a near whiteout snow storm to support similar demonstrations in Washington D.C. Sundance offered fertile ground for speaking truth to power.

Science at Sundance this year stayed focused on environmental and health issues, and looked ahead to science in the future. Partnering with Sundance for the 14th year in a row the award for best science film, the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, went to Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime. The filmmaker received a $20,000 cash award from the Sundance Institute with support from the Sloan Foundation. "With cool intelligence, wit and poignancy Almereyda explores the emotional landscape of artificial intelligence and dramatizes the emerging impact of intelligent machines on our most intimate human relationships," said Doron Weber, Vice President at the Sloan Foundation. The film depicts a near future, a time of artificial intelligence (AI). Fighting dementia, 86-year-old Marjorie sits with a handsome new companion who looks like her deceased husband and is programmed to feed the story of her life back to her. The film posits: What would we remember, and what would we forget, if given the chance? A cast of recognized star actors includes Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith and Tim Robbins. An all female jury of women in science—a cognitive neuroscientist, a flight systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California currently the deputy chief engineer for the Juno Mission, a science correspondent for National Public Radio, and women filmmakers with previous awards for science films—presented this year’s award for science in film for “imaginative and nuanced depiction of the evolving relationship between humans and technology, and its moving dramatization of how intelligent machines can challenge our notions of identity, memory and mortality.” One wonders what will be remembered over the next four years.

Unrest directed by Jennifer Brea from her sick bed after being diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly and unfortunately labeled chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), is a story of failed science and decades of medical neglect. Harvard PhD student Brea was stricken at 28 by a fever that left her bedridden. Doctors told her it’s "all in your head." Determined to understand her debilitating illness, she sets out on a virtual journey to document her story, discovering that an estimated 17 million people around the world are suffering from ME. The majority (75-85%) are women; many (80-90%) are undiagnosed, some forced into mental institutions. The film focuses on interviews via Skype with four victims of the mysterious disease, all bedridden, some paralyzed for years. “When the full history of ME/CFS is written one day, we will be ashamed of ourselves,” says a Norwegian Professor of Pediatrics and World Health Organization (WHO) Advisor. A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing was presented to the first-time filmmaker, who attended in her wheelchair aided by her spouse. U.S. broadcast rights to “Unrest” have been acquired by the multiple-Emmy Award winning PBS series Independent Lens. The series will premiere the moving personal film during their first quarter in 2018 on PBS following a national theatrical distribution.

Bending the Arc documents a 30-year effort by an idealistic but inexperienced group of activists, medical students and community volunteers as much of the world was being ravaged by horrific diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis. Among them the future head of the World Bank Dr. Jim Yong Kim and Dr. Paul Farmer began their work in a squatter settlement in Haiti. With determination to offer the same world-class level of medical care they would expect for their own families, they faced challenges and resistance from leading research organizations hesitant to support the high cost of providing health care, medical supplies and building clinics in poverty stricken countries. Guided by medical anthropology and a revolutionary model of training their friends and neighbors as health care workers, they created a new model of delivering quality care from Haiti to Peru, then Rwanda and other developing nations. The film offers a compelling argument for the power of collective and personal vision to turn the tide of history.

Motherland tells the story of yet another failure in world health care. With organizations like Planned Parenthood under attack by the new U.S. Presidency, the film exposes a world where the lack of reproductive health care and education have had devastating effects. The filmmaker takes the viewer into the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. Like an unseen outsider dropped unobtrusively into the hospital’s stream of activity, the camera passes through hallways, enters rooms and listens in on heartbreaking yet hopeful conversations.

The Discovery starring Robert Redford as physicist Dr. Thomas Harbor forecasts a scientific breakthrough that shocks the world, throwing lives off balance and challenging everything previously known about life and death. The film sets a love story in a world where the afterlife has been scientifically proven, and as a result, millions of people start taking their own lives to "get there." This film launches globally on Netflix at the end of March.

Sueño en otro idioma (I Dream in Another Language) from Mexican filmmakers Ernesto and Carlos Contreras tells the story of the last two speakers of a millennia-old language unspoken in 50 years. A young scientist, a linguist, tries to bring them together. What he discovers hidden in the past, in the heart of the jungle, is a secret concerning the fate of the Zikril language. The film received the Audience Award for World Cinema Dramatic.

Icarus investigates doping in sports, uncovering one of the biggest scandals in Olympic history. The filmmaker makes a connection with a renegade Russian scientist, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a pillar of his country's "anti-doping" program, and over dozens of Skype calls, urine samples, and badly administered hormone injections, filmmaker Bryan Fogel and Rodchenkov grow closer despite allegations that place the scientist at the center of Russia's state-sponsored Olympic doping program. The two men quickly realize they hold the power to expose the biggest international sports scandal in living memory. The film, winner of a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award, reveals the heart of an international game of cat and mouse, where a miscalculation can cost you your life.

The Mars Generation, a Netflix production, introduces a hopeful generation of want-to-be astronauts dreaming of being there for the world’s first interplanetary space mission. The film uses archival footage of 50 years of space research, successes and failures, and conversations at a NASA summer camp for youth who want to be a part of stepping foot on the Red Planet. Interviews with scientists and astronauts—including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Sunita Williams—provide an overview of the history and current state of space exploration juxtaposed with an intimate look at youthful self-described “space nerds” aspiring to be the scientists, engineers, and technicians to take humans to Mars.

Chasing Coral, among the films featured in The New Climate theme, received the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary. The film reports on coral reefs around the world vanishing at an unprecedented rate. A team of divers, photographers and scientists set out on an ocean adventure to discover why and to reveal the underwater mystery to the world. A VR experience is coupled with the film to make real the underwater world of bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef.

Rememory offers a noir mystery look at how memories define the present. An inventor of a machine that records people’s memories is found dead as a man is haunted by the past. Not much science but an interesting contrast to the science award winner.

In addition to features and shorts, several venues offered emerging virtual reality (VR) experiences into the world of science:

“Look for where the light is going to come,” Redford said as he stressed the impact of documentaries. Docs are more and more important now he said. “Docs can really tell the story.” According to science, methodically and verifiably, a fossil-fueled civilization lead us on a suicide mission to climate change. We’re close to the edge of figuring out how to live on a radically changed planet, or how about that ticket to Mars?

Go to for more information on this year’s festival and films.

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