Science at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and Beyond

Now in its 15th year, The Tribeca Film Festival of New York City has a long-standing commitment to showcasing films with “realistic and compelling” science and technology stories, dating back to its founding sponsorship by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. That often means digging deeply into topics in the headlines, like last year’s Short Documentary Award winner, Body Team 12, did with the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

This year’s festival made some headlines of its own, when founder Robert De Niro selected, and then, under pressure, rejected Vaxxed, a documentary by disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield that rehashes his debunked theory that vaccines cause autism. Over the past couple of days De Niro said he regretted pulling the film. The actor, who has an autistic son, told NBC Today April 13 that “there is something there” and now recommends that people see it.

We won’t comment on de Niro’s qualifications to make judgments on what’s valid and what isn’t in autism research. But we can tell you about a whole world of wonderful science films including features, documentaries, and science fiction shorts that remain in the festival program. They’re packed with undeniably sound science, covering topics from edible insects to in vitro fertilization. Be sure to look for them as they make their way to other film festivals, into theaters, and onto online platforms.

Feature Films

The Happy Film [Stefan Sagmeister, Ben Nabors, Hillman Curtis, 2016, USA]



How does one become happy? In The Happy Film, New York City graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister set out to answer this question by trying three approaches on himself for three months at a time: meditation, cognitive therapy, and medication. He documented the results in meticulous notes and inventive typographic interludes: animated, constructed, or even, once, danced scenes that distill his findings into epigrams. Sagmeister’s notes include detailed numerical scales of his own internal states as he underwent each experimental treatment, fell in and out of love, and launched a major art show. The resulting film is equally personal, thoughtful, and visually arresting. And while Sagmeister’s findings may be largely anecdotal, he sees the experiment through to the very end and consistently frames his questions well enough to generate genuine conversation and reflection.

BUGS [Andreas Johnsen, 2016, Denmark]



Andreas Johnsen’s BUGS opens with hard statistics: The world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that this will require a 70% increase in food production, including raising insects for high protein food. Ben Reade and Josh Evans of the Nordic Food Lab set off on a global tour to make sure our insects are as delicious as they are sustainable. Munching their way through Kenyan termite queens, Mexican larva tacos, and intentionally wormy cheeses in Italy they was poetic about mouth feel and flavor nuances like fine wine connoisseurs. As Reade observes in the film, insects are hardly stranger than the foods we think nothing of eating, noting that his only food poisoning on six continents came from a burger in Sydney: “The weirdest food, really, if you think about it, was that burger. Because that burger probably contained … traces of 500 different cows. And there’s nothing natural about that whatsoever.” Which underscores a major problem the film explores: the global food production and processing system is driven by profit, not flavor or sustainability. While BUGS may run dangerously close to a reality-TV cavalcade of “can you believe they ate that” moments, it’s this deeper reflection that gives it significance. Though it’s clear that there’s no simple solution to our food problems, cultivating new protein options can’t hurt. Adventurous audience members may even find themselves wishing that the theater would serve roasted Australian grubs along with the popcorn.

Children of the Mountain [Priscilla Anany, 2016, USA / Ghana]
haveababy [Amanda Micheli, 2016, USA]



Two films this year deal with the medical and social challenges of bearing children. For her first narrative feature Children of the Mountain, Priscilla Anany returned to her native Ghana to examine the stigma of congenital disorders like cleft palate, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome, all three of which afflict her protagonist’s infant son. In parts of Africa like Ghana, these are conditions for which the mother may be blamed, whether for having been cursed, having eaten the wrong foods during pregnancy, or even for the imagined state of a “dirty womb.” Often lacking access to proper medical care, desperate mothers turn to hazardous folk remedies or the predatory ministrations of the unscrupulous. Amanda Micheli’s documentary haveababy, conversely, looks at infertility, a persistant stigma in the west. Her subject is an annual contest held by a Las Vegas clinic: couples compete via You Tube videos to win a free session of in vitro fertilization, worth $20,000. 1 in 8 couples in America are infertile. The clinic says it does it to encourage ordinary couples to make their stories public and destigmatize the problem. Unlike Children of the Mountain, haveababy is both social commentary and medical procedural, taking us from the ovarian stimulation to egg release to in vitro cell division to implantation and (hopefully) a full term baby. “By humanizing the individual struggles of those who choose to build a family through IVF but cannot afford it,” Micheli told us in an email, “my goal is to ignite a conversation about the flipside of reproductive choice: the choice to have a child.”

Command and Control [Robert Kenner, 2016, USA]
Do Not Resist [Craig Atkinson, 2016, USA]



Food Inc director Robert Kenner’s Command and Control explores the risks of holding onto nuclear weapons, including the very real danger of a disastrous accident. Kenner exactingly reconstructs a nuclear incident involving a Titan II warhead in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980. By the mid 1960s, one of nearly 70,000 nuclear devices produced during the cold war. That no major accidents have ever taken place, despite over 1000 recently-declassified “accidents and incidents involving nuclear weapons”, is a matter of luck as much as care and preparation. The story is told through detailed interviews and reenactments in a decommissioned silo nearly identical to the original site. Billed as a “documentary thriller” and suitably gripping at points, the effect of this American Experience-produced film is suitably chilling. No complicated technological system, no matter how closely monitored, is foolproof. Taking a more contemporary view of military technology on U.S. soil, Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist examines the increasing militarization of United States police forces. Atkinson’s haunting footage of the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and armored vehicle deployments during routine drug searches elsewhere shows the result of turning over 40 billion dollars of ex-military equipment to local police departments with little oversight. He catalogues the latest in law enforcement science: a professor of criminology explains his statistical system for identifying those predestined for crime while squad cars equipped with face and license plate recognition systems automatically scan entire city streets for wanted offenders in a matter of moments. It’s difficult to avoid polemic when the stakes are as high as this. Atkinson, who was co-cinematographer on the 2012 urban decay documentary Detropia, has the confidence to let his observational footage speak for itself without need of narration.

Houston, We Have a Problem [iga Virc, 2016, Germany / Qatar / Slovenia / Croatia]



iga Virc presents an entertaining, if not necessarily credible piece of alternate history. He cleverly arranged documentary photos and footage around the premise that in 1961, the USA purchased the entire Yugoslav space program for 2.5 billion dollars. Did this actually happen? Probably not, but it feels plausible enough given the rocky cold war history of the United States and Yugoslavia. The film includes interviews with intriguing (and probably invented) characters like a long-exiled Slovenian scientist and contemporary philosopher. Those seeking technical detail about cold war space programs will find little of real substance here. But even if you view it as a post-modern shaggy dog story, the film sheds light on how easily scientific developments can be harnessed to build a national identity, particularly in those early years of the space race when anything seemed possible.

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