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A Nerd Girl's Notes from the Sundance Film Festival

The combo of STEM and filmmaking was once again going on at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in several festival films as well as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation sponsored panel "Control Factor."

Director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher Ford imagine life with robot caretakers for the elderly in Robot & Frank, a technology spin on the buddy comedy genre. Veteran actor Frank Langella plays the curmudgeonly old ex-jewel thief whose adult kids get a robot to take care of him. Sloan Foundation awarded the film a cash prize, and the Sloan jury commended it for "raising profound questions about the role of technology in our collective future."

The film also stars James Marsden, Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon and was acquired for distribution by Sony Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Films. On a less commercial scale, Valley of Saints by writer/director Musa Sayeed, tells the tender story of a young man who wants to run away from his impoverished village in India's Kashmir, but is instead drawn into a relationship with a beautiful young Kashmiri-American women scientist whose work challenges the status quo of their environment.

Sloan Foundation jury praised the film for its “brave, poetic and visually arresting evocation of a beautiful but troubled region.” It also won a cash prize from Sloan, which has been encouraging films with STEM themes and content with seed money and cash prizes for the last ten years. The Sloan Foundation's panel discussion examined such interesting questions as, "Is science in filmmaking typically framed in a "scary" science way? Do scientists think about the possible dangers of their research? Do filmmakers actually inspire the thinking of the STEM experts they go to for inspiration? Does accurate science improve the story? Filmmakers Gwyn Lurie (The Music Never Stopped), Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer) and Jake Schreier (Robot and Frank) shared insights with the panel's STEM experts Dr. Robert Full (UC Berkeley), Dr. Angela Belcher (MIT), Tracy Day (co-founder World Science Festival) and Dr. Helen Fisher (Rutgers University).

Some highlights: after studying the motion of gecko’s Dr. Full’s team builds robots that can climb the sides of buildings, Dr. Belcher says viruses can be good and may even save us from dangerous bacteria, Dr. Fisher reveals it’s true you can fall in love with a robot even though it's illogical, Tracy Day observes that filmmakers, like scientists, dream a lot of dumb ideas until they come upon one good one, and finally Alex Rivera wonders can there really be science fiction (isn't that an oxymoron)? On the documentary side of things at the festival, the not-to-be-missed passion project Chasing Ice was a staggering feat of filmmaking and won the cinematography award for director/cinematographer Jeff Orlowski (the fact that he survived the filming to receive the award is amazing!).

Orlowski documented National Geographic photojournalist James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey project—in which Balog devises weather resistant time lapse cameras, and puts them in some of the most dangerous places you can imagine, to capture the undeniable effects of global warming on our planet’s remaining glaciers. This film is proof positive that pictures speak a thousand words! National Geographic acquired the film for broadcast, but big screen distribution is also expected. Put this one on you 2012 short list of must see films and check out the website at

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