Science at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and Beyond–Virtual Reality and Science Fiction

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.


The Ark [Eline Jongsma Kel O’Neill, 2016, USA / Netherlands]

“When we began work on The Ark two years ago, there were seven northern white rhinos left in the world,” said director Eline Jongsma in the film’s press release. “Today, there are only three.” The Ark will appear as an installation in the Storyscapes section of the Tribeca Film Festival, showing on a headset inside a replica rhino transport crate, heightening that feeling of being on location. “If you want your audience to stand eye to eye with a disappearing species, and feel extinction in a tangible way,” O’Neill wrote, “VR is the logical medium.” In immersive 360-degree shots, this short film takes viewers to Kenya, where Dr. Stephen Ngulu watches over the last of the species. Then we move to San Diego where  the last northern white rhinoceros outside of Africa died last November of a bacterial infection. In a third sequence, geneticist Jeanne Loring cultivates pluripotent stem cells from frozen samples, hoping to resurrect  the rhinos through in vitro fertilization. The co-director Kel O’Neill explained in an email how the frozen rhino zoo inspired him to make the film. “She was 7 or 8 months pregnant with our daughter at the time, so we were thinking a lot about the future — both of our family, and of the planet as a whole.”

The Click Effect [Sandy Smolan James Nestor, 2016, USA]

The Crystal Reef [Cody Karutz, 2016, USA]

Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart [The New York Times, 2016, USA]
Collisions [Lynette Wallworth, 2016, USA / Australia]

Several film makers experimented with ways to use virtual reality in the festival’s new Virtual Arcade section. Both The Click Effect and The Crystal Reef take us under the sea. Viewers of The Click Effect follow marine biologists as they study dolphins and sperm whales clicking to sonically map their environments. The Crystal Reef take us to a bleached coral, which threatens to turn vibrant habitats into an “ocean moonscape”. “Drastic change in conservation behaviors” Cody Karutz, the director of The Crystal Reef, told us in an email, “can sometimes require unrealistic access to places or experiences that are impossible for the general public.” And according to Catherine Waage of, who were involved in both The Click Effect and the view from the Gaza Strip in My Mother’s Wing, also showing in the Virtual Arcade, the immediacy of VR is especially effective for “calls to action”. The downside to the format’s focus on the experience itself seems to be a general reduction in information, perhaps to avoid overwhelming a viewer already surrounded on all sides by footage. The most effective of the pieces, then, was that which merged hard data and experience directly: Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart uses astronomical data acquired by NASA’s New Horizons mission to place the viewer into a location even more difficult to reach than the ocean floor: the surface of Pluto. Photos acquired during the flyby were used to construct a detailed three-dimensional map of the dwarf planet’s surface, allowing viewers unprecedented access to vast ice sheets and craters. One detail in particular caught my eye as I virtually stood out on the frozen cartioid plane that gives the film its title: the fact that it was snowing. While it has yet to be established if the movement of methane snow on the surface is a result of air movements or genuine precipitation, this is apparently an accurate feature. The otherworldly experience is also enhanced by the extra care towards sound design that required four opera singers to be directionally mic-ed and virtually placed around the viewer. Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart was produced by The New York Times and like The Click Effect, will be appearing on the newspaper’s own VR mobile app in the next few weeks.Lynette Wallworth’s Collisions places its audience into a different kind of story, the recollections of Nyarri Morgan of the Martu tribe, who was a first-hand witness of one of the 12 atomic tests carried out in western Australia by the United Kingdom between 1952 and 1957. As with many of these films, the VR experience serves to make the distant material personal.


Never Happened [Mark Slutsky, 2016, Canada]

Never Happened – Trailer from Mark Slutsky on Vimeo.

Reality+ [Coralie Fargeat, 2015, France]

Reality + Directed by Coralie Fargeat Trailer VOST int from Mezzanine Productions Paris on Vimeo.

The Last Journey of the Enigmatic Paul WR [Romain Quirot, 2016, France]

In addition to documentaries, science fiction lovers will appreciate “Warped Speed”, a program of new futuristic science fiction shorts honoring the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. The television show wasn’t typically known for hard science so much as for harnessing science fiction to ask questions about ourselves. This venerable tradition of social-science fiction continues in many of these shorts, which use imagined technology to turn a mirror on present day concerns. In particular, two draw inspiration from omnipresent social media trends. Mark Slutsky’s Never Happened, in which coworkers on a business trip turn to a mobile app to erase their indiscretions, seems designed as an expansion on the short memories and secure communications offered by popular programs like Snapchat. Coralie Fargeat’s more developed Reality+ envisions a consumer augmented reality system that allows the user to only see and be seen in the ways that he or she would like to, at least for part of the day. The filmaims to make us ask: how far will we go to engineer our digital identities? Romain Quirot’s more surreal The Last Journey of the Enigmatic Paul WR, whose astronaut protagonist suffers from undesired telepathic abilities, suggests that excessive access to personal information may be more curse than gift.

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