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How Science and Technology Are Aligning With Cinema In the Trump Era — SF International Film Festival 2017

It's not an easy time for the arts and sciences — but recent advancements at San Francisco's film festival shows how the two disciplines are working together to stay afloat.

Festivals

On the first weekend of the 2017 SF International Film Festival, Pixar co-founder and Disney president Edwin Catmull was supposed to be talking about the history of creativity at his company. Early on, however, he deviated from that to discuss the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was founded in the Eisenhower era to enhance science and technology research beyond military purposes. “They decided to get smarter and try to fund smart people in schools around the United States,” Catmull said. “It was enlightened, because today, there are many political leaders who did not learn the lessons of the era.”

He stopped himself. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to get political.”

However, at a moment of radical change in the American political landscape, people working in arts and sciences often can’t help but politicize everything. With both the Environment Protection Agency and the National Endowment for the Arts endangered by budgetary cuts and a government that has shown disdain for their causes, the fields of technology and creativity are more aligned than ever before in a quest to keep their work alive. “The rapid rate of change induces fear and uncertainty and conservatism,” Catmull said in his speech. “This accidentally puts a damper on creativity.”

The studio executive wasn’t the only one at the 60th edition of San Francisco’s film festival finding common ground between science, technology and cinema. For 15 years, the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation has committed a wealth of resources to supporting storytelling that has a scientific focus, and this year the organization joined forces with San Francisco’s film society, SFFILM, in creating the Sloan Science in Cinema Filmmaker Fellowship. The first recipient is director Michael Almereyda, who’s using the opportunity to develop an upcoming project about Nikola Tesla.

According to Sloan Foundation program director Doron Weber, the company’s intentions haven’t shifted radical in the age of Trump. “To date, we have not changed our programming or priorities in terms of the stories we seek to tell,” he said. “We do not view science as a partisan issue. Administrations come and go, but the values and value of science is enduring.”

Notably, the foundation primarily focuses its resources on narrative filmmaking, not documentaries. “We want to show that science and technology offer filmmakers a rich mine of stories and characters that have gone largely untold and that you can engage audiences with good storytelling about anything,” he said. “We seek stories that are accurate in the science they depict but that are entertaining. Once you pique the audience’s interest, they can always go deeper in reading about a given scientific or technological subject. But first you need to capture their imagination and their heart.”

For SFFILM itself, the new Administration has created a broader set of challenges, even as the overall agenda remains the same. The Bay Area institution capitalizes on the overlap of Silicon Valley interests and a rich cultural landscape to funnel money and technological innovation into its filmmaking initiatives. “Our position is the same as it was during a friendly administration,” said the festival’s director of programming, Rachel Rosen. “It’s just the perspective that’s different. It’s more a question of communication than content. We’re interested in advancing those values to as large an audience as possible.”

“Bill Nye: Science Guy”

Rather than creating more overt ways of addressing the challenges ahead, the festival programming includes what SFFILM executive director Noah Cowan called “small pivots toward the political climate.” As one example, he cited a panel discussion following a screening of the documentary “Bill Nye: Science Guy” on April 10 that included an appearance by Eugenie C. Scott, the former executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “Two to three years ago, we might have had a more general conversation about climate science,” Cowan said. “Now we’re focused on science stats and why they matter. We’ve done these small things to reflect the national conversation.”

For Cowan, the work has just begun. “We live in complex times, and we need complex answers to the barrage of bizarreness going on in Washington,” he said. “Federal funding for the arts is non-negotiable. If anyone wants to talk about why that’s the case, we’re happy to do that, and direct them to people in the Bay Area who have changed lives. Please do not touch the NEA.”

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