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Giving oxygen to the theme of air 

Published online 17 February 2016

Imagine Science Film Festival, the Arab world’s ambitious science forum, aims to change the public’s approach and understanding. 

Pakinam Amer

A still from In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain.
A still from In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain.
© Imagine Science Films
Abu Dhabi is hosting the next installment of the Imagine Science Film Festival, the region’s second such event in which science and its implications are discussed and communicated through film. 

This year’s films come under the theme “air above us, air inside us”. They range from traditional to experimental, including some shot and produced by UAE students. The screenings, kicking off this week, are complemented by panel discussions, Q&A sessions, and a visual arts exhibit, called Atmospheres, which contemplates the intersection between science and art.  

Visitors this year should look out for Larissa Sansour's A Space Exodus, which paints a picture of the moon as the next frontier for displaced Palestinians. The work offers a unique repurposing of space to address vital issues in the region. The theme of displacement was in fact “so inescapably relevant this year,” according to the festival organizers, that an entire programme, Excavations and Displacements, was devoted to it.

Through it, scientific accounts of exoduses are balanced against more personal and social perspectives. Nate Dorr, the festival’s programming director, says that the festival features “some films from Palestine and Syria that wouldn't usually find their way into a ‘science’ program, but which were too pertinent to ignore.”

The festival is showcasing movies from the Gulf, the UAE, Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, plus Film Lab where UAE high school students produced two-minute films with their mobile devices on the theme “air” 

Nature Middle East spoke to the festivals’ executive director, Alexis Gambis, the NYU Abu Dhabi professor who brought the festival to the UAE, and Dorr about what’s in store this year. 

"Bringing science onto the big screen is a way of delving into other landscapes – cultural, political, societal."

Last year, the theme of water was chosen for the first edition of the festival because of its crucial importance to the region. How is this year’s theme “air” relevant to the Arabic-speaking Middle East? 

Gambis: The theme of "air" was inspired by a conversations and visits over the year in the Gulf region, notably a visit to the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai where we met some of the core team of the Mars expedition. Also, with the Climate Conferences in Paris, we thought it was a nice segue to discussing global warming concerns in the region, notably planning and predicting the future of the Gulf through science films and an exhibit. We wanted to tackle the dual "invisible" role of air as both a carrier of pollution and connective tissue bringing us all together and protecting us. We also ended last year with a feature film Sepideh about a young Iranian girl's dream to become an astrophysicist so we thought it may create continuity [between the first and] second edition - reaching from our atmosphere to outer space.

Dorr: Given that the UAE is poised to become a new center for space travel via Virgin Galactic and the UAE Space agency, that we have programming in a dialogue with outer space this year, via our closing night feature The Visit, and shorts like Momoko Seto's Planets series. 

How receptive is the audience to the festival? Has interest grown this year? 

Dorr: Science film, as an idea, is picking up momentum and broadening its definition worldwide. Since the the Imagine Science Film Festival began nine years ago [outside of this region], we've seen the appearance of many more creative impulses in science film programming everywhere, and also science being taken up by non-strictly scientific festivals as well, so the interest here is not unusual. However, perhaps science programming speaks even more directly to the Gulf Nations, who have traditionally been such a centre of scientific progress, and which have been changing so rapidly in the last 50 years.

Is it creating a buzz all over the Arab world? 

Gambis: Absolutely! More than ever science and art need to come together. This region is in full expansion, testing new materials and technologies as well as creating a new cultural hub. Bringing science onto the big screen is a way of delving into other landscapes – cultural, political, societal.

As the festival’s director, is there something you’d like to particularly highlight about this year’s edition of the festival?

Gambis: I am very much looking forward to the opening feature Ice and The Sky that closed Cannes Film Festival last year. The film represents our vision of breaking boundaries between forms of cinema -- combining poetic interpretations and reenactments, archival footage and documentary. It also delves into global warming via a personal narrative. We learn about Claude Lorius’s story and anecdotes analyzing "trapped air" in bubbles from over twenty years of our Earth's atmosphere. The film is also a call of action to tell people that now we really need to act collectively about issues of global warming. But I am also very excited about the eclectic range of short films ... Because Imagine Science Films is also expanding to video installations that cannot be featured in a cinema-format, I am very excited about the exhibit featuring work by the Semiconducting group that visualizes astrophysical data - we are showing a large-format projection piece called Black Rain.

What are you hoping that this festival evolve into? 

Gambis: We would like to engage more scientific institutions and film festivals in the region. We are planning to also do more retrospectives and find early videos about scientific discovery in the Gulf Region. Also, we now have a production branch called Field Work and plan to make both short and feature films all year. We actually have a few films in development, one a documentary on falcon training with drones and robot falcons. We also have in the pipeline a sci-fi short about a water bar set in the desert, that explores water quality and shortage in our future.

The festival opens on February 18th, 2016 in Abu Dhabi.