Scientist Filmmaker Alexis Gambis Embraces the In Between

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In Finland schools have spent recent years moving away from the traditional education system which teaches subjects in silos to adopt “phenomenon-based teaching”, a method which merges subjects like economics and geography or languages and history depending on the topic being explored in each lesson.

In New York City, and Abu Dhabi and Paris for parts of the year, French-Venezuelan scientist/filmmaker Alexis Gambis lives this philosophy, embracing intersections like these daily, specifically where art meets science.

As an assistant professor at NYU, Gambis teaches courses on the connection points between biology, visualisation and filmmaking.

As the founder of the annual, international Imagine Science film festival Gambis showcases science-interest storytelling with a strong focus on challenging form and genre in filmmaking. This position is one he takes as a director too, telling tales which weave between the categories of documentary, fiction and experimental.

What exactly is a science film though?¬†It was Einstein who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” This sentiment has become the criteria that Imagine Science works to. Gambis says, “First and foremost we‚Äôre looking for good films – a scientific message is important but it‚Äôs not the main ingredient when we‚Äôre selecting a film. We‚Äôre not a film festival that‚Äôs all about the message, you know ‚Äòsave our oceans‚Äô. We‚Äôre not politicised, we‚Äôre very experimental which frustrates some people, and causes interesting debates. You‚Äôll have scientists come to the festival and say, ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs not a science film.‚Äù But then the question is what is a science film? I love that.”

Gambis contemplates the subjectivity of science, what his role is to play and shares his preoccupations and opinions with Casimir below.

 

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“Science isn‚Äôt only about factual information, it‚Äôs about also communicating what it is to be a scientist, the artistic aspects, the human nature of doing science.”

 

Communicating your craft

I’m of the belief that scientists should be actively the ones communicating their science in whatever medium they decide to use Рwhether it’s photography, writing, film, radio. They should be the ones. This is something that I’m genuinely interested in. I’m a filmmaker number 1 but I also think about this and I feel a little responsible, it’s almost like a duty to be able to represent scientists and help change the image that they have. Over the last 10 years there’re a lot of organisations that have been popping up; a lot of new spaces where scientists are collaborating with artists. Especially a lot of young scientists, PhD students, Postdocs, they’re much more articulate and much more open because of the world we live in, and the fact that there’s so much more technology. There are a lot more people popping up doing Twitter, Vine, Vimeo. I think they’re much more hooked in.

 

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Subjective science

Science isn’t only about factual information, it’s about also communicating what it is to be a scientist, the artistic aspects, the human nature of doing science. It’s about understanding that science is actually very flawed, very subjective also. Obviously there are some things that are factual, there are some hard facts but a lot of it is about storytelling. When you talk to an artist and you ask them about their work, you don’t ask, “What is this painting going to do for humanity?” You ask them what their inspiration was, how they came up with this work. I think scientists should get the same treatment.

 

I think with any kind of work that you undertake whether that’s scientific or artistic, you should always think about why you’re doing it.

 

“If you make something with the idea that you‚Äôre doing something that‚Äôs truthful and objective then you‚Äôre lying to yourself because nothing is truthful or objective.”

 

‘Science thinking’

In general I’m much more interested in process than output. I think what science thinking can provide to other fields is this idea of process. What scientists are the best at is that they are extremely patient people because they can spend 10 years working on an experiment that fails. Scientists have this ability to think long term.

 

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Where science meets art

Scientists are also extremely artistically inclined because you have to devise experiments in order to address a question. It’s in the moment of creating your set up and how you’re going to answer these questions that you get the most creative in science. That’s what has led people to getting the Nobel prize, is thinking outside the box.

 

And just the technique of artwork requires a scientific understanding. Even if you want to create something abstract you extrapolate from certain ideas and then you bend those specific theories in order to make abstract work. The most interesting abstract work is the work that you understand the chronology of. If you look at Matisse or you look at Picasso, you see the progression of what are certain rules and what are certain constraints they put on themselves in terms of creating different types of movements like Cubism. And that’s because they’re starting with certain theories on perspective or about proportion and then they’re saying, “What if I were to tweak this, how would this change?”

 

Of course film requires a huge scientific skill set. The people who make the film happen are all technically trained. You should understand these elements as a director as you’re constructing your story. What are the things that can help you achieve certain scenes? I’m very into the idea that whatever set you want to create is better achieved if you do it while you’re shooting rather than in post-production. If you want to create this idea of being trapped in a bottle or looking through a microscope, it’s much more interesting to figure out how to do that with a camera. What do you put in front of a lens, how do you work with light?

 

Truth and fiction

I really enjoy all types of filmmaking, I enjoy playing around with the form a lot. And our team here at Imagine Science is all about that. The films we make are always challenging the form.

 

I guess the take home message is, if you make something with the idea that you’re doing something that’s truthful and objective then you’re lying to yourself because nothing is truthful or objective, do you know what I mean? If you make a documentary and you say, “I really captured what happened in New Orleans” or “I really captured the Rwandan genocide”, even if it’s a documentary on human rights or whatever it is, it’s still a construction, right. Same with fiction, there’s a lot of truth to it as well. So there is no such thing as purely fiction or purely factual and so that’s why I play with it as much as possible.

 

I’m very interested in the merging of reality with dreamlike states. I’m interested in blurring the lines between what feels real and what feels unreal Рboth in terms of the characters that are in my films and also in the way the films are made. I guess my films have a bit of a docu-fiction aspect to them where it may start as a documentary and then it ends up as a complete fictional film, with a surrealist touch.

 

Still from Alexis Gambis's 'Guardian of the Mangroves'
Still from Alexis Gambis’s short docu-fiction ‘Guardian of the Mangroves’
'Lucien Mind' in development 2016
‘The Water Maze’ in development 2016
Still from The Fly Room, a feature film by Alexis Gambis
Still from ‘The Fly Room’, a feature film by Alexis Gambis

 

Other species

I’m also very interested in animal perspectives. It sounds silly but there’s usually an animal that’s the main protagonist in all of my films. It has its own perspective, its own point of view. I made a film called The Fly Room where the flies have their own perspective and my next feature film is about a young scientist who experiments on rats; he works on memory in rats and he’s also trying to understand his relationship with his father through memories.

 

They’re the best actors around. I use the animal perspective as a way for us to think about humans. How they see us. How silly we are, basically. We always talk about doing research on animals and I think it’s interesting to think about how they perceive that in some ways. Of course it’s fictionalised but it gives you another angle into scientific research. Not necessarily criticising the fact that we’re doing research on animals but just giving them their own voice.

 

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Science fiction

I overthink a lot of things but I’m very interested in human behaviour. When I’m with people I’m constantly thinking about codifying their behaviour, trying to understand why they behave in a certain way. And it actually takes me out of the conversation at times. I’m interested in trying to find connections, the neuronal connections. The first person I do it with is obviously myself. Making films is my way to understand the stuff that I think about. It’s my way of summarising and understanding.

 

I think it’s important to understand where we fit in in the universe and I’m all for trying to understand how we fit into a larger context. I think that it’s important to be hopeful about changing our habits and changing our world.

 

A lot of the science research that’s happening today feels like science fiction to most people. Science fiction is great, I love science fiction, but you could present something that’s happening now in research and people would be like, “That’s totally insane, I can’t even fathom that that’s happening.”  We’re all connected to our devices. There’s kind of a cyborg element to people in their daily life and that scares me because it’s happened over the last ten years. It hasn’t been that long.

 

The world we live in is total science fiction.

 

alexisgambis.com

imaginesciencefilms.org

 

 

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