Science and the imagination: the 5th Imagine Science Film Festival

Imagine Science is back at The Arts Center at NYUAD, a weekend film festival with an accompanying exhibition, workshops, gallery talks, discussions, and conversations. This year those conversations will include tumultuous natural histories and speculative futures, the deaths of stars and radical life extension – everything that concerns the crucial process of Survival, the theme of this year’s Imagine Science Film Festival.

The aim is to take a hard look at life on an earth that is facing climate change, species loss, nuclear proliferation, and the imminent exhaustion of our energy resources. The stakes are high, but so are the opportunities. New technologies constantly open new possibilities; socio-political change opens the way for new ideas to take hold.

And the organisers see Abu Dhabi as an entirely appropriate place for these conservations – “as a city carved out of the desert, Abu Dhabi knows the challenges of human existence in an inhospitable environment, and the ingenuity that allows us to thrive nonetheless. It also knows well the global reliance on the oil it produces. SURVIVAL, here, takes on a sharper image against high temperatures, vital desalination operations, vast but finite resources, and rapid adaptation to changing conditions. Here we may approach, in microcosm, our most vital global questions”.

We caught up with ISFF’s program director for Abu Dhabi, Nate Dorr, to find out more about those goals and aspirations.

Hi Nate – can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in Imagine Science Abu Dhabi?

Like everyone at Imagine Science, I’m a bit of a hybrid. I studied Neuroscience originally and operated a lab for years, but at the same time I was working as a photographer and curating other film festivals. All those lines eventually converged here, as the programmer of Imagine Science Films. So, while many people contribute to the programming process each year, my main role is to keep up with all the latest science-relevant filmmaking, in and out of the Middle East, and find the best films of the year to bring to our audiences.

What’s the background of Imagine Science? The combination of science and films is an interesting one – but why film? Why not some other art form like (say) design, theatre, music?

We do encompass many different art forms – there’s a full art show each year along with the festival in Abu Dhabi (which often includes design, this year as well), and we’ve also involved music, performance, even dance.

But film is a great form as it potentially incorporates all of the others, and in a small portable package that we can easily bring to many people. So we’re a film festival foremost … but also much more than that.

And what’s the goal? Are you aiming at scientists and filmmakers, looking to expand their horizons? Or is it broader than that – should we all be more aware of the importance of scientific communication?

We absolutely all should! Scientific questions are everyone’s. Science, technology, and medicine shape our every day lives in so many ways; and the better informed we all are, the better our outlook – as societies, as a species – for the future.

We certainly do like to speak directly to scientists, of the many ways to communicate their work beyond the obvious, and to filmmakers, of the wealth of scientific subjects that are worth addressing in new ways, but a strong component of our audiences have always been the general public.

We hope that anyone who intends will be informed in some way, of course, but even more so, we hope they will be inspired. The questions and conversations we open up may have much more impact down the road than any tidy answers we can provide right now.

This year’s theme is ‘survival’. Isn’t that a bit pointed, given the size of the UAE’s carbon footprint and the headlong development of its coastline?

I don’t thinks it’s too pointed – survival concerns all of us, and for all of the inevitable issues that come along with rapid growth in a place like the UAE, we’ve been encouraged to see serious thought and resources put towards projects like MASDAR (for its limitations, it is still a significant testing ground for new city planning ideas), Smart Cities, and Expo 2020. Of course, much more can be done, but it’s a conversation that’s already very much in progress here, and we’re happy to be a part of it.

Let’s assume we can’t go to everything at this year’s festival: what shouldn’t we miss?

We have three fantastic features this year, but personally, I recommend the short film programmes Conversations with Nature and Evolving Eyes and Revised Societies. These collect many perspectives and approaches to a theme; and with the short form you get to explore that many more subjects, many more ideas in a short time.

And with almost all of the filmmakers attending this year, you can hear more from them and ask questions, even become part of the conversation yourself, following the screening. Likewise, with our gallery talks: many chances to dig deeper into the films and artists this year.

But of course, if you’re interested in questions of nature vs. nurture in identity, you have to come out to our opening night film, Three Identical Strangers; and if you are interested in those questions of improved city planning for the future, our closing night feature The Experimental City is not to be missed.

[Update: Three Identical Strangers is booked out, but there may be some returns on the night.]


The programme

All events are free, but space is limited and pre-booking is essential.


30 Jan 6pm Opening reception The Arts Center

Celebrating the opening of the festival and especially the exhibition. All exhibition artists will be introduced and refreshments served.


30 January to 9 February Exhibition: SURVIVAL NYUAD Project Space

What will survival mean for us in the near future? In this exhibition the artists explore the ubiquity of urban surveillance and resulting human adaptation, the mysteries of perception that will need to be solved before machines can see the world as we do, and the algorithmic observation of the end of the world via the endless data offered by social media. Meanwhile, the natural world perseveres: the beleaguered ecology of the Anthropocene continues on and the simplest organisms endure the complex requirements of survival. 30 January 6-11pm then 31 January to 9 February 3-11pm

The artists:

Marina Zurkow a media artist focussed on “near-impossible nature and culture intersections”, currently researching the tensions between maritime ecology and the ocean’s primary human use as a capitalist Pangea

Liam Young independent urbanist, designer and futurist based in London; founder of Tomorrows Thoughts Today, a futures think tank whose projects explores the consequences of fantastic, perverse and speculative architectures and urbanisms.

Marleine van der Werf filmmaker and visual artist based in Rotterdam, creating poetic/cinematic worlds and experiences that combine analogue film, projection techniques and virtual reality to challenge ideas of how we construct reality

Emilia Tikka designer and artist, lecturer and researcher, originally from Finland but now based in Berlin. Currently artist in residence at Max-Delbrück-Centre for Molecular Medicine and State Festival, the first European artistic residency on the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9

Emily Scaife photographer and animator “obsessed with texture, colour and nature” and “audiovisual concoctions”. Her projects often begin by collecting specimens, then manipulating them through analogue photographic and mark-making techniques to produce print and moving-image works

Franz Milec currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Audiovisual Studies at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Considers himself an essayist, seeking to uncover the complexities of what we perceive as banal and unimportant; recently started exploring the intersection of film and data visualization, and his works are headed towards full automation and AI


30 Jan 7.30pm Opening feature Black Box

Three Identical Strangers dir Tim Wardle (2018)

Three men meet in 1980s New York to discover that they’re triplets who were separated at birth and adopted. What are the relative roles of nature and nurture? Details here. [Sold out, but there may be returns on the night]


31 Jan 7.30pm Feature Black Box

K2 and the Invisible Footmen dir Iara Lee (2015)

Located on the border between Pakistan and China, K2 is the second-highest mountain on Earth. For many climbers, it is an even greater prize than Everest, with limited routes, a steeper ascent, and a harder push to its summit. Despite being paid considerably less than international expedition leaders, a cadre of Pakistani porters have for decades facilitated the ascent of the mountain – both providing supplies to expedition base camps and taking on high-altitude tasks in support of ascending climbers. This difficult and dangerous work means these men are worthy of recognition as the true heroes of mountaineering.

Shows with Ex Nihilo, an experimental short documentary about life, death and our attempts to control them via the stories of an advanced humanoid robot, a cryonics facility, and an international seed vault.

After the screening there will be a talk with K2’s cinematographer and editor Jawad Sharif and Stephane Boissinot from NYUAD’s Department of Biology.

Details here[Sold out, but there may be returns on the night]


1 February 6.30pm Gallery Talk Black Box

Near Futures A Gallery Talk with Emilia Tikka, Franz Milec and Alia El Kattan.


1 February 7.30pm Shorts Black Box

Evolving Eyes & Revised Societies

How we see the world shapes the world in turn; a change in perception may become a change in all of civilisation. As the human eye gives way to cameras and screens, we seek the immortalities offered by museum collections, robotics, and biological regeneration. Details here.

The Last Job on Earth [3 min: Moth Studio, UK: 2016]
Meet Alice, holder of the last recognisable job on Earth, trying to make sense of her role in an automated world.

Changing the World: Bit by Bit [13 min: Ahmed Geaissa, UAE: 2017)
The mysterious world of bitcoin and cryptocurrency.

The Prediction Machine [15 min: Marleine van der Werf, Netherlands: 2017]

Dutch neuroscientist Floris de Lange was inspired by the film Robocop’ to explore what predictions do to our perception as a first step in understanding the brain.

RGB [13 min: Jad Sleiman, Lebanon: 2018]

A Palaeolithic man discovers a mysterious black liquid in his cave and finds himself immersed in a transcendent journey of exploration.

Through The Glass Lightly [3 min: Alexis Gambis, UAE: 2018]
An older man meets his younger self in a timeless desert and tells him what the future holds.

FOMO [20 min: Amédée Sabra, Lebanon: 2017]
A young man enters a rehab centre for social media addicts. Denied his phone, how will he get connected again?

Somniculus [14 min: Ali Cherri, France/Lebanon: 2017]
Filmed inside a series of empty museum galleries across Paris, Somniculus articulates the tension between the lives of objects and the living world that surrounds them.


2 February 2pm Gallery Talk Black Box

Artists Studying Nature A Gallery Talk with artist/filmmakers Emily Scaife and Marleine van der Werf


2 February 3pm Family Matinee Shorts Black Box

Conversations with Nature

A shorts programme aimed at families, observing the ways that human survival is bound to that of our natural environment. Expect astonishing images and surprising viewpoints. Details here.

Attraction [5 min: Emily Scaife, UK: 2017]
Urges in the undergrowth, erupting fungal fantasies, bursting botanicals; the dust and desires of a tiny alternative universe. A mixed media, experimental animation imagining attraction and pleasure in insects, and the seduction methods of plants and fungi.

Back to the Wild [34 min: Veronica Iacono, UAE: 2018)
We share our planet with over two million species, but up to two thousand become extinct every year. What if we could turn back the clock for one of them? Back to the Wild traces the journey of Scimitar-horned Oryx as they return to Chad after being extinct in the wild for over 25 years, the largest mammalian reintroduction effort in history.

Hairat [7 min: Jessica Beshir, Ethiopia/Mexico/USA: 2016]
A meditation on this uniquely symbiotic relationship between man and wild beast; Yussuf Mume Saleh journeys nightly into the outskirts of the walled city of Harar to bond with his beloved hyenas.

From A to Bee [8 min: Maryam Moustafa, UAE: 2017]
A honey company struggles to keep their bees alive.

Anthropology of the Future [7 min: Alexis Gambis, UAE: 2018]
A series of six chapters that explores the future of humanity through the embodiment of the future in evolving creatures.

Wild [9 min: Volkan Budak, Turkey: 2017]
Human-animal antagonism in the Red River Delta.

Becoming [6 min: Jan van IJken, Netherlands: 2017]
A film about the miraculous genesis of animal life: in microscopic detail, follow an Alpine newt from the first cell division to hatching.


2 February, 6.30pm Gallery Talk Black Box

Where the City Can’t See A chat with artist Liam Young


2 February 7.30pm Closing Feature Black Box

The Experimental City dir Chad Freidrichs, USA (2017)

The story of the Minnesota Experimental City, a futuristic attempt to solve urban problems by creating a full-size city from scratch in the isolated woods of northern Minnesota – planned as a new kind of city, one that could change continuously to find workable solutions to urban problems. Sadly, not everyone fell in line with this vision …

Shows with the short film Seoul Machine City, a portrait of a city where machines and technology are now the dominant inhabitants. Scripted and narrated by an AI chatbot, the city machine voices its own creation story and explains itself to the citizens it affectionately manages.

Details here.



Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply