Science in Fiction

A biologist-filmmaker with one eye looking through a camera and another looking down a microscope.

By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

From suspect WhatsApp chains to lengthy news articles on the subject, the bombardment of information about COVID-19 is relentless. The latest issue of Labocine, the so-called “Netflix for science,” is not shying away from the coronavirus, instead the online platform is shining a different light on the pandemic by showcasing works that weave the seemingly disparate worlds of cinema and science.

Alexis Gambis, assistant professor of biology, film and new media at NYU Abu Dhabi, started Labocine as an initiative that aims to disseminate some 2,500 science films from over 200 countries to a wider audience. The subscription-based research journal draws from its wide base of artists, scientists, filmmakers and journalists to curate videos and articles that pertain to the monthly theme.

“People in general respond to video, they like watching videos as a way of understanding concepts that are hard to grasp. Because right now there is a lot of anxiety and frenzy and a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus, not enough people are necessarily looking at scientists. Obviously, scientists are involved in communicating it, but the best way to learn about it is to actually see it, almost a portrait of the virus. Rather than me telling you about it, let’s see it,” he said.

Behind the scenes of Son of Monarchs: Alexis Gambis discusses with his Script Supervisor Andrea Martinez Crowther shots at the bench with Mendel (Tenoch Huerta)

Working quickly with the network of hundreds of these collaborators from around the world, Gambis and his team were able to produce an entire issue on pandemics and disease to help illuminate the current outbreak of COVID-19.

The Labocine April issue, titled Epidemics and Microfauna, brings together dozens of videos, ranging from lacy experimental videos to short documentary pieces on various different diseases, viruses and pandemic outbreaks. The goal is to communicate science more expansively to viewers that are often being misled by their sources of information about COVID-19.

“We are informing the public about the current situation through a playlist of films provided by scientists and artists. Be it in an animation on washing your hands with soap, a documentary about microbial organisms, a fictional take on humanity during a pandemic or a compilation of stunning electron microscopy provided National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, all of these videos are brought together to create a cinematic experience that both educates and entertains,” he said.

Gambis’s project is a culmination of an eclectic career marrying the scholarship of a molecular biologist who spent most of his twenties with an eye to a microscope looking down at fruit flies and an upbringing drenched in the world of film. Gambis said his upbringing, with a mother as a filmmaker, ingrained an innate fluency with the world of cinema. 

“I grew up in a film world with actors around me, that has always been a part of my growing up, but as I was doing my PhD, I realized there was a need to find ways in which we can have a more seasoned and less cliché of thinking about science and film, beyond just science documentaries or science fiction,” he said. 

An example of how Gambis explores that interplay between his two spheres of interest is found in his latest work, Son of Monarchs. The French-Venezuelan’s second feature film explores the interplay between evolution and immigration by depicting the protagonist metamorphosing into a butterfly to cross the border between the US and Mexico.

The idea behind these films, and a big part of the biologist-filmmaker’s message, is trying to put more science in fiction as both a method of communicating earnestly about science and to bring the two fields closer together.

Informing the public about science, whether it’s in films or in information about COVID-19, is furthering the goal of Gambis’ lifework as he finds that his projects serve as an extension career.

Labocine falls into the mission behind Imagine Science Film Festival, which Gambis founded as a way of trying to promote a dialogue between scientists and filmmakers. The film festival, which has been running since 2008, is held annually and showcases science through fiction, documentary and animation over a week in New York, Abu Dhabi and Paris.

“Ultimately, we all crave fiction, we all crave stories. The word fiction has been stigmatized with science because we think we’re misrepresenting science. But it’s the opposite, we’re paying tribute to science by incorporating it into stories that people can identify with,” he says.