Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Editor's note: Sara Alexandra Pelaez is one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2016. The scholarship meant she participated in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, a workshop at the Sundance Film Festival for aspiring film critics started by Eric Kohn, the chief film critic and senior editor of Indiewire.
Gift stores almost always have a given tackiness about them, but Southwest Indian Traders, located underneath the Sundance Filmmaker Lodge on Main Street, provided a very Utah atmosphere for my conversation with Doron Weber of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a group that gives a Feature Film Prize to films with science and technology as a theme. Past winners include “The Stanford Prison Experiment” and “I Origins,” and this year’s prize went to “Embrace of the Serpent.”
We both were situated on fur-lined benches (which kind of animals, I did not care to find out), encapsulated by long wooden skis and snowshoes the size of mammoth’s feet. Gazing around the lumbered mom-and-pop, I saw antique Native American carved boats suspended from the ceiling, mounted animal heads, and cheeky artisan signs that had hand painted guns on them and read “We don’t call 911.”
Mr. Weber was very candid with me, asking me questions about myself as well as giving me constructive criticism throughout the conversation. He said I was “ambitious, in the best sense of the word” at the very beginning.
I understand that your ultimate motivations here at the festival are to support and award films that creatively present science and technology in an accessible way.
That’s only half of it.
Could you explain the other half?
Well, we also support screenwriters, one through the lab and one through commissioning grants, in order to develop films ourselves that have to do with science. We have a kind of farm system, like a developmental pipeline. Sundance is one of four or five of my partners. And we might often give a grant at Sundance, then they’ll go on to making another film, and it keeps them going. And so, I say that’s as important. The public sees the film that wins the award, and that’s nice and that’s important … but it’s the new word that we’re trying to get into that pipeline and start off and encourage younger filmmakers and screenwriters to take on this subject matter. We’ve been doing it now for, like, this is our thirteenth year at Sundance, I think. And so we’ve arguably helped to move the culture a little bit towards this through funding all the film schools. I also do books, radio, theatre, all towards the same goal: to show people that science and technology are a part of modern life, and scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are human beings like me and you. And to understand the nature of their work.
Mr. Weber went on to explain the argument presented by C.P. Snow in which the languages of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers veer off into their specializations so deeply that they develop their own exclusive language. This language then becomes increasingly inaccessible to the larger group, including the humanitarians. These artists, playwrights, developers speak much more easily to the larger group, but they also never intersect with the scientists. In effect, they forget how to speak to one another, which is tragic beyond belief. His aim, with the work he does at Sundance, is trying to bring those two cultures of Shakespearians and Einsteins together, using film as a universal vehicle to reach the public.
The division is artificial, between science and art. You have to see the whole thing to see how each piece fits.
So let me see if I’m understanding you correctly; in order for you to do your job more successfully, you need to find more generalists in the world? Like finding more Renaissance individuals.
I would say my ultimate goal is to turn everyone into a version of Leonardo da Vinci.
Perfect. He saw the world holistically.
He was a great scientist and a great artist. It’s really a question of the fullest most comprehensive view of life, that’s really my personal drive. That’s what animates me in terms of what I’m doing, what animates me as a writer in my own endeavors. I’m not trying to get anyone to do anything other than to open themselves up. A lot of the stuff I do is through entertainment. I’m also a big funder of PBS documentaries, for example, which are more overtly didactic. But this effort is very much about entertainment. We want you to come, you know, for fun.
Yeah, for fun and enjoyment and to also just get people thinking. For people to walk out of the theatre with something left on their minds, and to create conversations that they probably might not have had if they had not seen a particular film. Or to contribute to a bigger conversation.
That brings me to my inquiry, for me as an individual I very much value representation of women, and representation of diversity–
Oh, I definitely look for stories about women. I want these things to be equal, I prefer to back women directors, women writers, not just in film but in many things that I do. Because there are voices that we need to bring us back to the fuller picture. You’re missing like half the story.
I mean, women are half of the human population.
And we have a lot of projects, I’d be happy to tell you about, which are finally seeing the light of day.
Could you tell me about some?
Sure! The one I’ve been pushing the longest, over 10 years, is the Hedy Lamarr story.
Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Kiesler, was an Austrian-American film actress and “a brilliant technological pioneer” who was discredited for her impeccable brains for her controversial performance as the first naked woman in film. She developed ungodly technological advances for the Allies in World War II, including frequency-hopping. Frequency-hopping is one of the foundations of your modern day smartphone, and when she presented it to the Pentagon, they immediately dismissed her, as they didn't take her seriously because of her acting career. When the 1950s rolled around, they realized just how important this invention was. In good spirits towards Lamarr and her scientific advances, Doron Weber has since commissioned a book, a play, a documentary, and a four-part mini-series was optioned from the previously mentioned book. Behind the documentary are two women producers, and a woman director. Other women in science stories that Weber has been supporting through film, television, and theatre are Rosalind Franklin (x-ray crystallographer who made the discovery of the double-helix nature of DNA), Jane Goodall (primatologist best known for her five-decade study of chimpanzee interactions), Marie Curie (chemist/physicist who pioneered research on radioactivity, first woman to win the Nobel Prize, first person to win it twice), and Lisa Meitner (one of the first physicists who discovered nuclear fission in uranium).
And then there’s a book I gave a grant to called “Hidden Figures,” the story of the African-American women mathematicians who helped NASA and the US win the space race. One of those women mentioned in the book is Katherine Johnson, and she just received the Presidental Medal of Freedom from Obama in December. And now that book is going to be turned into a movie. Personally, I would even like for these stories told by women, in other words, it’d be great to have a woman director.
And a woman producer, and a woman writer.
Yeah, because the sensibility is different. And since many of these women have to overcome all kinds of prejudice, women are going to understand that better than men. Maybe not better, but differently, and we want to hear their perspective.
Now do you anticipate these films to be more narrative-driven or more nonfiction-documentary style?
Well, mostly they’re narrative-driven.
Creating more entertainment because it receives a wider audience.
Yeah, because a film can take some poetic license. If you’re more interested, you can read the book, read deeper, and then we have time to explain all the nuances.
Weber then elaborated upon his and the Foundation’s involvement with the recently released Alan Turing’s movie, “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The British government issued an apology because the film was coming out. This individual, Alan Turing, died in the fifties, and it took the British government 60 years to issue a public apology for how they had smeared his name and relevance. And they did it when they knew the film was coming out and there would be all this attention prodding at them. Weber cited this as an example of filmmaking having a positive impact.
In terms of your question about diversity, we want to tell more stories about women, and people of color. And it’s a challenge to find those stories, but it’s worth it. Another film I’m very fond of is a short film called “Afronauts.” It’s about the Zambian Space Academy in the 1960s, when they decided they were going to beat us to the moon and it’s told by a Ghanaian female filmmaker. It inverts our prejudices because the notion that a bunch of people thought they could, and they tried to build a rocket ship is a wonderful way of offending stereotypical assumptions. And so film and books have the capacity to bring those kinds of sensibilities. Having said that, we could still do better.
I totally agree. I’m going to go bring you to our next topic then. There are many influential individuals in the world of science on either side of the artificial intelligence debate. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking all agree that it poses an imminent threat to mankind whereas Allen’s Artificial Intelligence Institute and Stanford University stand opposed. Can you please contribute your own stance on AI and its representations?
[Chuckles] Well, I’m not an expert, first of all, but we did just host a conference on AI at NYU, in fact. And, my view is I think the word “imminent” I would take issue with. I think artificial intelligence poses a potential risk, and so it’s worth taking time out to explore it, but I don’t think we’re on the verge of having super-intelligence come and start ruling us. Frankly, we’re not that good yet, we haven’t come close. We’re better at single task stuff. You know, when they did the Human Genome project they said that 5% of all the funding would go to looking at the ethical implications. I think anytime you get a powerful new tool, and AI is certainly a powerful new tool, the ethical and social ramifications are fundamental. And since that’s not necessarily always a scientist’s first concern, it’s important that people are exploring this. So, I welcome more debate, more discussion, as the technology evolves we should keep the conversation open. I think there are a lot of things going on now that worry me even more than the potential with AI, though it’s a completely legitimate subject to raise issues about. Also people working in AI are not as worried about it, you know.
Because it’s their field?
Because it’s their field but also we’re so far away from the super-intelligence thing. You know the scene with Hal, in “2001: A Space Odyssey”?
Yes, I watched it when I was younger, but I vaguely, vaguely remember.
It’s the one of the most famous scenes, where the astronauts are speaking, and they’re saying they’re going to need to disconnect Hal, and he’s like reading their lips and he knows what they’re saying.
So, with him having that capability, and that film was made in 1968, we still cannot technologically build something like that. Even driverless cars, which is an actual thing, I have my own questions about. Unless everyone was in a driverless car, then it would work. But as long as you have humans on the road–
There’s always human error.
Unpredictability, more so than error. By definition, technology enhances our capabilities, right? AI is another tool, and I’m completely comfortable with the questions being raised, but I think certainly we should support the research. But I also think science should always have an ethical component. There’s implications for every decision we make.
We continued to discuss other areas of our conversation thus far, about diversity, women in film, privacy issues, etc. We discussed Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, “Master of None,” and how his second episode “Parents” affected me as a first generation American-Colombian-Arab. Weber also verbalized his colleague’s efforts to get more African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans into the sciences. His efforts are more so to communicate with the percentage of people who will not be scientists and engineers, and getting them to be more comfortable with science. He then dropped the Colombian title “Embrace the Serpent” with high praise; little did I know that it would win the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Prize that very next day. I honestly don’t know if he knew it would win either, because he articulated he was not on the jury.
It’s a beautiful film, and the committee will have discussion because it doesn’t have overt science, though underneath it it’s about the people who made that voyage ultimately wrote very scientifically important treatises on plants. See if I could support a film like that, I would love to, but for me I always have to say “Is there enough science in it?”
Yeah, absolutely that’s your defining factor. You can’t just play advocate for the sake of it.
You don’t do anyone a favor when you do that.
No, absolutely not, cause it discredits you and the Foundation and what you guys do. You are specifically looking for science-oriented films. And you know what, I don’t blame you, it’s very difficult to find those kinds of diverse stories because the matter of the fact is that throughout US history there just hasn’t been a lot of people with those kinds of stories. Systematic prejudice has disallowed people of color and other backgrounds to advance in these fields. Something that I think is really worth looking into are the astronomers from the Middle East.
Yes, they dominated the world centuries before anyone else in that field. In the Islamic world, which was in the 1200s, they were light years ahead of everybody. The thing about science is that it’s actually very democratic because anyone can overthrow authority with science. Like, tomorrow a 12-year-old kid can actually prove Einstein was wrong, and he’ll become the new Einstein. There’s nothing that is sacred in science, because it’s all about proof and evidence. If you promote science, you promote open thinking, and challenging authority. Dictatorships don’t like science. The Russians, during Stalin, they also suppressed science, because they needed to control the message.
Let’s move onto my third and final question I have lined up for you. So, would you say that virtual reality isn’t a very good standalone medium?
Well, it’s an open question. Virtual reality is exciting, huge amounts of money are going into it. So, something is going to happen, with that many people placing their bets. And Google, Amazon, everybody’s getting into the game. What I’m saying is that it’s a technology in search of its ultimate form.
Because it’s so young still?
It’s so young, and movies specifically, how they’re going to harness that. I think it’s already a powerful tool for gaming, and for individual experiences. I mean, for a five or ten-minute immersive experience of being in a Syrian camp or watching Ebola or running with an animal, those kinds of things it can do very well. But they’re almost more like special effects or single experiences.
Rather than a storyline?
Right. But I’m curious enough to explore it a little bit. See what it could do because it’s not yet clear.
This is a subject I am very optimistically predisposed towards, so when my interviewee articulated his hesitations on the medium, I was fiercely unsettled. His rationale was markedly cogent. He described to me his skepticism, especially concerning the lack of communal ambience virtual reality lacks. I cited a metaphor verbalized during the YouTube panel I had attended: you read a book as an individual but the social dimension of it is discussing it with others. To this, Weber replied that although that is true, words of a book exist visualized within our imagination and virtual reality is what the director wants you to see. You can choose within the experience where to look, but ultimately your imagination has control over that aspect only. When a book turns into a movie, someone might say about a character, “that is not at all how I pictured them” when the actor is exactly how someone else pictured them. Words are a lot more malleable in this way, and this point was disconcerting to me to say the least.
The director has created a 360-degree frame, and you can look at any part of that that you want, but it’s still only 360 degrees they’ve picked out for you. What about what’s outside of the frame? I don’t want to criticize it. VR is imaginative; it does new things. I just wouldn’t say it’s like a book.
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