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Wanted: Filmmakers to Use Science for Good


Drew Endy, Yewande Pearse, Richie Mehta, Sophie Barthes, Doron Weber of  The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Ahmed Best participated in a Big Conversation at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)

By Vanessa Zimmer

Filmmakers probably won’t solve the climate crisis, feed the hungry, or keep the robots from turning on us, on their own. But they do have a powerful platform to light the fire for progress in other people.

That was one takeaway from The Big Conversation: Appetite for Construction, a discussion group at the Sundance Film Festival examining a path to science optimism — in contrast to all those pessimistic, world-shattering, dystopian outcomes on our movie and TV screens.

Participating were Sophie Barthes (The Pod Generation), Richie Mehta (Poacher), neuroscientist Yewanda Pearse, and Drew Endy, associate director of bioengineering at Stanford University. The conversation was led by actor Ahmed Best, of the Star Wars: Jedi Temple Challenge TV series (and, before that, Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels).

Endy makes the point that nightmarish stories are easier to market and sell than dreamer-variety positive stories: Audiences are attracted to doom and gloom. So, Ahmed asks: How should film inspire dreamers of a better future through technology to take action?

“You ask that of a French person?” Barthes jokes, people known for operating under “a heavy, dark cloud of pessimism.”

Pearse is the one who voices the idea of film being a “powerful platform” for creating engagement, and Mehta takes the concept one step further within his own work. As a filmmaker, he uses every narrative tool in his repertoire to catch a viewer’s attention — even if that means having that negative, pessimistic opening — and then works to penetrate their cynicism. Then, over the course of a project…

At this point in Mehta’s explanation, he and Best, in the spirit of conveying a sense of storytelling momentum, get up and gallop down the center aisle of the room, as the audience watches in surprise.

… the positive leaks in, and the fire for change is lit!

“Assault them with optimism!” Best shouts, as they walk back to their seats at the front of the room.

So, there you have it: Call it the Mehta/Best technique for envisioning a better future.

The science-in-film conversation was sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, an entity that supports efforts to bring science and the arts together. The Sundance Institute has partnered for 20 years with the Foundation in awarding fellowships and grants to aid in making films with science or technology as a theme. And each year, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize is bestowed upon one film.

This year’s winner was Barthe’s film, The Pod Generation, a futuristic story about the Womb Center, which offers potential parents convenient, detachable pods to grow their babies.

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