The ultimate film festival for science geeks

In other film festival news (not involving phallus costumes), I had a chat today with Alexis Gambis, the director of the Imagine Science Film Festival, on this week in New York City. If you haven’t heard about ISF yet, that’s probably because it was launched just last year. But it seems poised to become the go-to place for getting your cinema geek fix. (Note: Based on the results of my exhaustive 1-minute investigation, the world’s largest and least-known science film festival seems to be this one in Bangkok.)

Alexis Gambis is an unusual guy. Just last year, he was a cell biologist, finishing his PhD at Rockefeller University in the Steller lab. He’s half-French, half-Venezuelan, grew up in  a French artist colony and went to college in the US. His mother is a filmmaker and his father is a famous painter. When I met Alexis, he was fund-raising for his newly created film festival while running the last of his experiments in the lab. (The weird connection: His lab bench is right down the hall from Rockefeller postdoc Nilay Yapici, with whom I launched the very first “Dance Your PhD” contest in Vienna, Austria.)


Here’s my Q&A with Alexis, edited for bloggy brevity:

Q: How goes the festival?

Gambis: Very good but crazy. We’re at a different venue every night, so it’s like a traveling science film circus. Yesterday we had an amazing screening for kids. One of the films was about Leonardo trying to create a flying apparatus. We had Eric Kandel (Nobel, 2000) on Friday come and speak about his film In Search of Memory. We’re almost halfway through the festival now.

Q: Are you getting good audience numbers?

Gambis: We’re 10 times bigger than last year. And the amount of people showing up to these events has been amazing. We’ve been sold out every night. But the big events are still coming up. We’re screening the world premiere of Quantum Quest. It’s a film told from the point of view of a photon. It was directed by Harry Kloor, the Star Trek writer. It has the voices of Samuel L. Jackson, William Shatner, James Earl Jones… And we have a mockumentary about global warming on the closing night. It looks like we could have as many as 2500 viewers by the end.

Q: I know you have to go teach in 10 minutes. What’s the class?

Gambis: Yeah, I’m now in film school at NYU, but meanwhile I’ve become adjunct faculty to help pay for it. I teach an intro science class called “Molecules of Life” to undergrads. It also keeps my feet wet in the sciences, which I love. The kids are great, although it’s weird that they’re not much younger than I am.

Q: How old are you now?

Gambis: I’m 28.

Q: So what has it been like to transform from scientist to film impresario?

Gambis: It’s been a rollercoaster. Just last year I was looking at fruit flies under the microscope, and now I have acting classes and I’m shooting films! The conversion from scientist to artist has been a little surreal. I moved from upper east side to Brooklyn. I got a new haircut.  I have cinematography classes. But it’s all interrelated. Science and art are part of the same thing for me.

Q: What film are you shooting?

Gambis: The working title is DISPOSABLE. It’s about a girl who uses a robot to get her sensual fix. It will be done by Christmas.

Q: Looks like art was destiny for you.

Gambis: Yeah, I tried to rebel against my background by going into science! I love biology. But I couldn’t fight it. I’m ecstatic.

(Editor’s note:  In the spirit of full disclosure, the Imagine Science Film Festival was funded in part by a grant from Science/AAAS as noted here on the AAAS blog.)