I’d like to think of the Sundance Film Festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize as a beacon of hope for science in film. But it’s an award that no one is promoting, bestowed for reasons no one can divine, based on a process that no one will talk about.
Between The Martian and Ex Machina, movies about science and scientists are becoming more common at the multiplex. But they aren’t getting any more accurate. The Martian is about a botanist with knowledge he couldn’t possibly possess. The supposed geniuses of Ex Machina barely seem to understand the Turing Test. Even Interstellar, which went out of its way to get the astrophysics just right, threw in a line about how the world doesn’t need engineers in a time of food scarcity. And don’t get me started on how movie scientists are almost always white men.
Where narrative films are struggling, documentaries have been picking up the slack. Take this year’s Sundance crop. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ Unlocking the Cage distilled complex primate science into a digestible, engaging format. Josh Fox gave us the basics of climate science without pulling out lecture slides in How to Let Go of the World (And Learn to Love Climate Change). But documentaries still have trouble breaking through to the mainstream, especially when they cover science-related topics.
I’d like to think of the Sundance Film Festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize as a beacon of hope for science in film. The Prize — an annual award of $20,000 given to a film at the festival that is “about science or technology, or depicting a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character” — offers a unique opportunity for a science-related film to get rewarded and recognized for doing just that. My understanding is that the Sloan Foundation intends the award to encourage people to make more films about science and scientists. But how it’s chosen has always been a mystery to me: the press releases are vague, and mainstream media only reports which film was declared the winner.
This year, I tried to learn as much as possible about how the Sloan Prize promotes science in film and how the award winner is chosen. But for a prize about science, which is all about transparency, the Alfred P. Sloan Prize couldn’t be more opaque. Despite extensive inquiries, nobody could tell me which films the jury watched, who selected those films, or the specific criteria used for awarding the prize. The unofficial shortlist I was given isn’t publicly available — and even the Sundance Press Office didn’t seem to know how the process worked. Worse, even the Sloan Foundation doesn’t seem to have a vision for what the award is meant to achieve. The Sloan Prize is an award that no one is promoting, bestowed for reasons no one can divine, based on a process that no one will talk about.
The winners of the Sloan Prize are frequently baffling. Winners tend to be science fiction films only tenuously connected to science, even in years when more thoughtful movies were in contention. Past winners include: last year’s Stanford Prison Experiment, which was actually about social science; I, Origins, one of the biggest offenders of 2014 for depicting pseudo-science; and Computer Chess, which was at least about tech nerd culture. I suspect that contenders are mostly narrative films, given that only one documentary has ever won the Prize — Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. In fact, one juror I spoke to dismissed documentaries outright, likening the whole genre of documentary film to eating your vegetables. This is a worrisome perspective, since documentaries make up half of the Sundance programming.
Determining which films were considered for the Prize proved surprisingly difficult. At my request, the Sundance Press Office gave me an “unofficial short list” of 20 films, which wasn’t publicly available. Since the prize was awarded on Day 5 of the festival, it clearly wasn’t possible for the jury to watch all of the films on the list I was given. When I asked individual jurors, I was told they all watched the same “four or five films” that were chosen by an outside body. Jurors weren’t allowed to tell me which films made the shortlist, and had no idea who picked the films or how. No one else seemed to know either. When I asked the festival publicist to connect me with whomever chose the films, she assumed I was asking to talk to the jury.
My best guess is that the shortlist is chosen by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which also awards grants to make films about science. Many Sloan Foundation films have gone on to win the prize. It’s a little insular and ensures that the same kinds of films get considered every year. The Sundance Festival itself has a hand in this homogeneity. One juror told me me that the Sundance Festival doesn’t deliberately seek out science-related films to compete for the Sloan Prize; instead, Prize contenders are chosen from films already accepted for the festival.
The Sloan Prize is about promoting science, but the Sundance Festival seemed shocked that press wanted to cover the award. When I requested an interview with the jury members to learn about their criteria for awarding the prize, I was given two options: talk to them before the prize was announced, when I wouldn’t be able to ask about the winning film; or talk to them after the prize was announced, when only one juror was available. The festival hadn’t even considered scheduling a press conference for the prize or time for the jury to do interviews. I was persuaded to come to the Awards Reception to at least try to get some quotes. The publicists refused to arrange any formal interviews, so I found myself chasing down jurors at a cocktail reception.
What a mess. Shane Carruth, the only juror with expertise in both film and science (an engineer by training) wasn’t even there. Actress Kerry Bishé was there, but neither I nor the publicists could locate her. Genetics Professor Ting Wu spent almost the entire reception telling people about her research. Physics Professor Clifford Johnson and Writer-Director Mike Cahill had some interesting thoughts about about what they valued in a prize winner, but it was too loud and informal to record anything that was said. By my count, there was only one other member of the press at the event. Not even trade publications bothered to send someone.
This year’s Sloan Prize was awarded to Ciro Guerra’s adventure drama Embrace of the Serpent, which was one of the most tenuous candidates on the list I was given. There’s a scientist in it, but he doesn’t actually do any science. The film, which captures cultural differences between South American indigenous groups and white scientists, is more about anthropology and colonialism than scientific practice. At first glance, it didn’t even make sense to me why it would be in contention. The jurors’ only public explanation for their choice was a one-sentence statement praising the film’s “original and provocative portrait of a scientist and a scientific journey into the unknown, and for its unconventional depiction of how different cultures seek to understand nature.”
My only option for finding out more was to track down the few jurors present at the reception. The jurors gave thoughtful reasons for their choice, even if I still wouldn’t have picked this film. Mike Cahill wanted to recognize the film for the seminal real-life contributions made to science by its protagonist. Clifford Johnson also admired the film’s depiction of a scientist as adventurer rather than a lab coat-clad square. Johnson also suggested that even the indigenous people’s approach to working with nature was something like peer review: tested over generations. Both cited a pivotal scene when the protagonist, a scientist, reluctantly leaves behind a compass that was taken from him by the indigenous people. Cahill quoted the indigenous character’s line, in response, “You can’t keep knowledge from us,” as showing the spirit of science. Johnson appreciated how the scene forced us to question the ethics of scientific practice and its ties to colonial history: did the scientist have the right to try to prevent the indigenous culture from being “corrupted” by Western technology?
It’s a shame that the prize seems focused on narrative films, because there were so many strong documentaries in this year’s festival. My top choice would probably be Josh Fox’s How to Let Go of the World (and Learn to Love Climate Change), which covers an essential topic, still widely misunderstood, in a palatable and digestible way: he finds a great emotional hook. But I would be just as happy to see Penny Lane’s NUTS! take home the prize for its inventive, highly entertaining warning about the dangers of scientific illiteracy. Hegedus’ and Pennebaker’s Unlocking the Cage does the same, if more subtly, in a pure verité doc that covers complex law and science. Their footage of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary is moving and fascinating, especially as it shows not just chimpanzees’ empathy but prodigious intelligence. Sadly, I suspect none of these films were even screened for the jury.
After ten days of film screenings, interviewing directors her with potential Sloan contenders, publicity requests, and harassing party guests, I still don’t understand how the Sloan Prize works. The films awarded are rarely models of how to depict science in film, in part because they often don’t even involve science. Moreover, the prize doesn’t seem to be dedicated to spotlighting an underseen film that could be important for scientific literacy. The films that win rarely need the boost: Embrace of the Serpent is already an Oscar nominee, and last year’s Stanford Prison Experiment was a hotter ticket than other, better, more relevant films like Experimenter and Racing Extinction.
As there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate press coverage, publicity for the winning film and the prize itself doesn’t seem to be a priority. With an opaque process, baffling criteria, and no publicity, I can’t tell what this prize is aiming to achieve. Worse, I’m not convinced that the people behind the Prize have any idea what it’s supposed to be doing either. The Alfred P. Sloan Prize could be an important asset to scientific literacy, but it needs some serious rethinking and a whole lot of transparency to get there.