Filmmakers and scientists engage in an ‘Appetite for Construction’ |

Filmmakers and scientists engage in an ‘Appetite for Construction’

Sundance panel addressed optimistic future settings

'The Big Conversation: Appetite for Construction' is available for streaming through Jan. 29 at
From left: Ahmed Best, professor at the University of Southern California’s School for Dramatic Arts and Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, left, listens to filmmaker Sophie Barthes, as Stanford University Associate Professor of Engineering Drew Endy and filmmaker Richie Mehta participate in the Sundance Institute and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s annual science and film forum titled “The Big Conversation: Appetite for Construction” on Monday at the Filmmakers Lodge.
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Some of the clichés of science fiction films include dystopian settings or settings that may appear utopian, but turn out to be dystopian.

During the Sundance Film Festival’s annual science and film forum titled “The Big Conversation: Appetite for Construction,” held Monday at the Filmmaker’s Lodge, panelists discussed why gloomy futures are so appealing to filmmakers and audiences, and how science and technology could be used in a more protagonistic way. 

Moderator Ahmed Best, professor at the University of Southern California’s School for Dramatic Arts and Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, and co-founder of Afrorithm Futures Group, started the discussion by citing American Philosopher Dr. Cornel West’s definition of pessimism.

“‘(It’s) human wretchedness as being all there is,’” Best paraphrased. “I can’t believe that, because I believe, as human beings, we want the best for each other and for this earth. And one of the reasons why I was interested in this conversation is because I am very much an optimist. So, I’m hoping we can uncouple this idea of optimism being either naive or idealistic.”

Best asked the panelists — filmmaker Sophie Barthes, Stanford University Associate Professor of Engineering Drew Endy, filmmaker Richie Mehta and Neuroscientist and Science Communicator Yewande Pearse — to express their thoughts about why pessimism is attractive.

Pearse said it’s because humans are addicted to the fear of the future.

“I think, as humans and as part of our survival, we’re always primed to face danger and to make sure we adapt in a way that allows us to survive,” she said. “Being attracted to danger feeds into that early evolutionary idea of seeing the danger and finding the solution.”

That’s how science and the funding structure of scientific research are set up, and that drama bleeds into audiences’ expectations of films set in the future, according to Pearse.

“In terms of film and entertainment, I think there is a lot of tension in the desperation and that’s attractive,” she said. “But flipping it and focusing on these areas where we can thrive, where we can dream, and think of ways to actually enjoy life more is an interesting concept.”

Sundance Film Festival logo

Dreams are also an interesting concept in films set in the future. Dreams play a big part in Barthes’ feature film, “The Pod Generation,” which is in the not-too-distant, technology-saturated future where pregnancies occur in detachable wombs.

“When I was expecting my first child, I had insane dreams that are now in the film, and I think a society that does not believe in the power of dreams is in bad shape,” she said.

Endy, a bioengineer, also views dreams, like Barthes, as a tool, but he operates in a world where the negative tends to lead the narrative, especially when getting funding to work on a project.

“Our whole profession tends to be over driven by the immediate urgency to curing the disease, or solving the climate crises,” he said. “It’s much easier to frame a story around a nightmare dream. It’s easier to sell, easier to market. That’s the underlined cultural context in which science is operating.”

Highlighting the negative is powerful, but it can also be a curse, especially when working on issues such as climate change and pandemic vaccinations, according to Endy.

“When you adopt the negative frame, you don’t get collective actions until enough people believe the nightmare is real,” he said.

Putting forward a positive dream would reorient the system, according to Endy.

“We’ve been exploring flipping (things) around and putting forward the positive dream, not a utopia, but a positive articulation of a better future we can get to,” he said. “If you can reorient the frame, that feeds back into the tool development into the question formations and into the results. Do we have a chance to get off this treadmill of nightmare storytelling and put forward a collective frame around positive future stories? If we get to that, you’ll see what people like me do become subtly different.”

Another topic Best asked the panel to address is the backstory of how a lot of films set in the future got to their bleak settings.

“(In most films), we are already introduced to a dystopian landscape, but we never figure out how we got there,” he said.

Mehta, who directed an upcoming episode in the “Extrapolations” series, focuses on stories that address the human conditions that lead up to those futures.

The filmmaker’s “Extrapolations” episode, written by Rajiv Joseph, takes place in Mumbai, India, in 2059, and the setup is that India has shifted to a nighttime economy because of the heat, he said.

Although Mehta considers “Extrapolations” climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” he has personally felt the shift of countries moving toward the nighttime economy,while he was shooting “Poachers,” a feature about cover-ups surrounding illegal poaching in India.

“I was shooting in Delhi, and it was June when it was already 52 degrees celsius,” he said. “I could see it was already shifting to a night economy in the summer. And the change has been gradual. Every month, every year, these gradual changes occur.”

Neuroscientist and Science Communicator Yewande Pearse discusses why a dystopian future, rather than a utopian future, is more appealing in filmmaking during the Sundance Institute and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s “The Big Conversation: Appetite for Construction” panel on Monday.
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Mehta got interested in doing an episode of “Extrapolations” because a lot of futurists and scientists consulted on the series.

“What attracted me here is that science was going to be used as a solution to fix this,” he said.

Best then asked whether science is the actual answer or just a path to the answer of creating optimistic futures in films and life.

“My very short answer is I believe science is a course correction, and then, more issues, positive or negative, emerge from that,” Mehta said. “It’s not the answer, but, in the case (of “Extrapolations”), it’s a step in the right direction.”

Science is one answer, one perspective, and you can use nature, coupled with the idea of telling stories to create an optimistic future, according to Barthes. 

“As science develops, it doesn’t just only solve problems and offer solutions,” she said. “It also creates new possibilities.”

Barthes said another inspiration for “The Pod Generation” was 17th Century philosopher Bruch Spinoza.

“He said, more or less, the more we think we control nature, the more nature reminds us that it’s controlling us,” she said. “For me, in the film and my own belief, there is a form of hubris that makes us believe that we’re smarter than that, and we can control that. But today, with climate change and everything that is happening, it’s obvious what he said in the 17th Century is that we’re a little speck of the big machine, and that’s hard for us to comprehend.”

That’s why Pearse thinks it’s important how the public sees scientists and who scientists are, because that is what’s going to determine the science that is done and the questions that are being asked.

“In early science communication, the focus was on education,” she said. “The more information you have, the more impactful it would be.”

Now, a lot of research is more about engagement and meaning-making, according to Pearse.

“I think film is such a powerful platform to create meaning, and it’s actually more realistic of the relevance of science, because it’s not about scientists in labs working away on scientific questions that the rest of the world aren’t fully aware of,” she said. “It intertwines with life in general.”

Another way to confront pessimism in thinking about dystopian futures is to critically think from all sides of how an invention could help or hurt humanity, Barthes said.

“If we are going to invent and create things, it would be helpful to have the philosophical, ethical and moral debate before the thing has been created, and before we (have fallen) so in love with this creation,” she said.

“The Big Conversation: Appetite for Construction” panel was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has partnered with the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Institute on programming for 21 years.

The foundation, founded in 1934, provides grants for basic scientific research, according to its Vice President and Program Director Doron Weber.

“(We) work to strengthen the quality and diversity of scientific institutions and workforce, as well as work for a better understanding of science and technology,” he said, before the panel started.

The foundation also annually gives out the Alfred P. Sloan Award to the Sundance Film Festival’s feature that focuses on science or technology as a theme, or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character, Weber said.

“We also provide writing fellowships,” he said. 

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