Science and Technology at the Sundance Film Festival 2018

By JoAnn M. Valenti, Ph.D.

One hundred and ten feature-length films from 29 countries selected from 13,468 submissions were showcased late in January’s snow covered Park City, Utah mountains for the annual Sundance Film Festival. The international festival also includes documentaries, shorts, work in a new Indie Episodic category, panels, music and New Frontier’s ever-growing array of AI and VR experiences.

The Alfred P. Sloan Award for a science film feature and the Audience Award in the NEXT category was presented to an unusual more-tech-than-science film Search from Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian. After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a desperate father breaks into her laptop to look for clues to find her.
The story unfolds entirely on computer screens.

A U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Excellence in Filmmaking was presented to
I Think We're Alone Now starring popular actors Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning.
Although billed as an apocalypse story, there is no reference to what caused the planet’s near demise or why/how a handful of humans seem to have survived.
The tale is more one of the human need for companionship than one of environmental chaos.

A World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing went to Maxim Pozdorovkin and Matvey Kulakov for Our New President for the tale of Donald Trump's election told entirely through Russian propaganda via Russian Television (RT).
While the global reach of this fake news broadcast is of major concern to real journalism, some of the film’s “evidence” –other than actual footage from RT--seems questionable. Although no specific references to science or environmental issues are included, this satirical portrait of Russian media reveals an enormous source of fake news and the tactics of modern-day information warfare.

Another World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award, this one for Cinematography, went to Genesis 2.0 from Switzerland. While searching for tusks of extinct mammoths on remote New Siberian Islands in the Arctic Ocean, hunters discover a surprisingly well-preserved mammoth carcass.
The prospect of a new technological genetics revolution may be in the making.

Not among the judges’ awards winners but receiving a first ever Audience Award Favorite was Science Fair.
Another excellent documentary Inventing Tomorrow covered the same story.
Both documentaries follow high school students from around the world as they prepare for, then compete in, the Intel International Science Fair (ISEF) held annually in Los Angeles, CA.
These young science students offer hope for the planet’s woes; a generation promising solutions to seemingly overwhelming environmental problems. Severe air pollution in Mexico. Improved ways for communities to test water for pollutants in India and Indonesia. Developing new medical instruments and flying machines. Ideas for cancer prevention and prevention of Zika disease spreading.
Innovative students from Bangladesh, Germany, Brazil, around the world determined to improve the future.

Among the documentaries screened none focused more on climate change than Anote’s Ark, the story of entire countries forced to relocate populations and culture as the seas rise around their Pacific islands.

The Devil We Know reviews the history of DuPont’s horrific chemical contamination beginning in West Virginia and spreading around the globe: Teflon continues to kill.  And in an art meets archaeology, fashions and physics documentary 306 Hollywood gives new genre-blending meaning to documenting family history from New Jersey to Rome.

Festival founder Robert Redford told the opening press conference that “too many voices are trying to erase a diverse universe.” Keeping voices heard is the challenge The Sundance Institute confronts. “The role of art in society is to describe it and critique it,” Redford said.
Indie filmmakers defy categories, let their films tell the story and offer authentic personal narratives.

The final awards ceremony was live-streamed. For images of the program’s films, visit Sundance photo album.