Let’s get one thing straight: we’re not here today to talk space operas. No wookies, Riddicks or stargates. No spice mélange. Which is fine by us, because our kind of people are the ones who thrill to the possibilities—and creative storytelling potential—of actual math, technology, economics and engineering. As a philanthropic, not-for-profit institution devoted to the support of scientific research, diversifying of scientific institutions and fostering of public engagement with science, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s purview is a little more unique.
For over ten years, Film Independent and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have worked in collaboration—through grants, program support and the Sloan Film Summit, returning next month, April 8-10—to help filmmakers create more realistic and accurate stories about science and technology that challenge existing stereotypes about scientists and engineers in the popular imagination.
So! As we prep final details for the 2022 Sloan Film Summit kickoff in two weeks—the first in four years due the event’s normal production interval (initially) and COVID-19 (subsequently)—we thought it’d be fun to take a look back at some of our favorite Sloan-supported projects over the years. And for a complete list, check out Sloan Film’s website.
CODED BIAS (2020)
Writer, Director: Shalini Kantayya
Featuring: Joy Buolamwini, Meredith Broussard, Cathy O’Neil, Silkie Carlo
Producers: Shalini Kantayya, Michael Beddoes, Sabine Hoffman,
Why It’s Important: Featuring interviews with top researchers working in the field of artificial intelligence, Shalini Kantayya’s thought-provoking documentary seeks to explore the intersection of technology and social justice, unpacking the built-in—literally!—racial biases inherent in modern facial recognition software. In doing so, she creates a worrisome portrait of the ways in which societal prejudices filter down from creators into the tech we’ve all grown increasingly dependent on in the 21st century. An indictment of the algorithm in all its myriad forms, Coded Bias premiered at Sundance in 2022. See last year’s Film Independent Presents Q&A with the filmmakers here.
Where to Watch: Netflix
TO DUST (2019)
Director: Shawn Snyder
Writer: Jason Begue, Shawn Snyder
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick
Producers: Josh Crook, Scott Floyd Lochmus, Emily Mortimer, Alessandro Nivola, Ron Perlman
Why It’s Important: Nominated for Best Screenplay at the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards, Shawn Snyder’s unlikely buddy movie tells the story of the widowed Schul (Röhrig), a Hasidic Jew living in the American Northeast, who forms and unlikely research partnership—and eventually friendship—with rumpled biology professor Albert (Broderick) after developing a pathological need to know what will happen to his beloved wife’s burial after her death. Perhaps the most heartwarming film about grave robbing ever made, To Dust is a moving exploration of the connection and overlap of science and spirituality.
Where to Watch: AMC+, Hoopla, Vudu, Kanopy, IMDb TV
BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY (2018)
Writer & Director: Alexandra Dean
Featuring: Hedy Lamarr (archive), Mel Brooks, Jennifer Horn, Wendy Colton
Producers: Alexandra Dean, Katherine Drew, Adam Haggiag
Why It’s Important: Undoubtedly one of the greatest Hollywood beauties of her era, the Austrian-born movie star Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was way more than just another pretty face. In her off-hours the MGM starlet was an inveterate tinkerer, radio enthusiast and hobbyist inventor. During WWII, Lamarr endeavored to help the war effort when she developed a patented “frequency-hopping” technology to help keep US Navy sub torpedoes on-target. Alexandra Dean’s enlightening film biography chronicles these heights alongside Lamarr’s periodic lowlights—starring in a scandalous German proto-porn, a later post-career shoplifting bust—to create an in-depth portrait of a fascinating woman.
Where to Watch: AMC+, Kanopy, DirectTV, Sundance Now
THE HOUSE OF TOMORROW (2017)
Writer & Director: Peter Livolsi
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, Nick Offerman, Ellen Burstyn
Producer: Danielle Renfrew Behrens
Why It’s Important: Inspired by the work of systems theorist, author and architect Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), Peter Livolsi’s The House of Tomorrow isn’t exactly your standard Sundance-approved light dramedy. For one, its central familial unit, the Prendergasts (including Asa Butterfield and Ellen Burstyn) live inside a giant geodesic dome—a progressive marvel of structural engineering (“continuous tension—discontinuous compression”) that Fuller helped develop and popularize. As Butterfield’s wayward Sebastian befriends punk rock schoolmate Jared (Alex Wolff) outside the home, Burstyn’s Josephine continues keep Fuller’s ideals alive, providing retro-futurist tours of her private dwelling.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
Director: Logan Kibens
Writers: Sharon Greene, Logan Kibens
Starring: Martin Starr, Mae Whitman, Nat Faxon, Cameron Esposito
Producers: Aaron Cruze, Logan Kibens
Why It’s Important: The “gameifying” of modern life has its benefits, with health and productivity data tracked and presented in real-time, thanks to a variety of wearable gadgets and digital reminders. But when does this cocoon of information cease to be empowering and become a prison instead? Not exactly the sort of introspective subject matter you’d expect from a rom-com, but that’s exactly what Logan Kiben’s Operator is: computer programmer Joe (Starr) suffers from crippling anxiety, which his crippling addiction to personal metrics helps combat. Things veer off projection, however, when he enlists his wife Emily (Whitman) to provide the voice for an AI he’s developing—creating an unexpected “third” in their relationship to complicate things.
Where to Watch: Fubo TV
SENSITIVITY TRAINING (2016)
Writer & Director: Mel Finell
Starring: Anna Lise Phillips, Jill E. Alexander
Producers: Mel Finell, Megha Kohli
Why It’s Important: Another rom-com with a scientific bent, Sensitivity Training follows Dr. Serena Wolfe (Phillips), a socially challenged microbiologist forced to undergo sensitivity training after her at-work prickliness goes a step too far. Her coach is too-nice-for-her-own-good Caroline (Alexander), whose baseline perkiness is seriously challenged by Serena’s abrasiveness. The odd-couple pair develops an unlikely friendship… and possibly more? The film premiered in the “LA Muse” section of the 2016 LA Film Festival, where director Mel Finnel and Paul Cannon were profiled by Film Independent.
Where to Watch: Tubi
Writer & Director: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, Winona Ryder
Producers: Danny A. Abeckaser, Michael Almereyda, Fabio Golombek, Per Melita, Isen Robbins, Aimee Schoof, Uri Singer
Why It’s Important: Michael Almereyda’s intense drama chronicles the infamous “Milgram Experiments” of 1961, in which Yale researcher psychologist conducted a series of social psychology experiments centered on obedience and the abuse of authority. Each experiment involved an “Experimenter,” “Teacher” and “Learner,” with Experimenters ordering Teachers (the actual subjects of the experiments) to administer a series of increasingly painful electroshock treatment—fake, unbeknownst to the Teachers—to the Learners. The results (as dramatized in the film, with Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram) were a shocking indictment of how susceptible self-identified “good” people are to the will—against their professed moral values—to a more authoritative power.
Where to Watch: Fubo TV
THE IMITATION GAME (2014)
Director: Morten Tyldum
Writer: Graham Moore
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear
Producers: Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman
Why It’s Important: Morten Tyldum’s 2014 historical drama, stars thespian’s thespian Benedict Cumberbatch as tragic English mathematician, computer scientist and logician. Using his brilliance to develop of system of decrypting intercepted German messages during World War II, Turing was later betrayed by his homeland, prosecuted as a homosexual (illegal in the UK until 1967), stripped of his security clearances and chemically castrated. The drama of the film—costarring Kiera Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear and Alan Leech—primarily focuses on Turing during wartime, as well as the development of the famous “Turing Test” to measure machine-learning.
Where to Watch: Fubo TV
COMPUTER CHESS (2013)
Writer & Director: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Wiley Wiggins, Jonny Mars, Tishuan Scott, Chris Doubek, Cyndi Williams
Producer: Houston King, Alex Lipschultz
Why It’s Important: Perhaps the most surreal film on this, mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation) got seriously weird with his fourth feature, set at a 1980 conference for computer chess enthusiasts somewhere in California. Shot on the analogue video cameras of the era, what at first seems like a retro-stylized comedic riff on a Best In Show-esque devolves into a psychedelic horror fantasia, as the conference’s attendees let their mechanical obsessiveness and maddening code infect their psyches. A unique experience all around, Computer Chess will take you back to tech’s earliest days.
Where to Watch: Hoopla, Kanopy, Fandor, Realeyz, Curia
ROBOT & FRANK (2012)
Director: Jake Schreier
Writer: Christopher Ford
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard
Producers: Lance Acord, Sam Bisbee, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Galt Niederhoffer
Why It’s Important: Somewhere in the near future, retired jewel thief Frank Weld (Langlla) gets an unusual present from his son: a semi-intelligent robot creature designed to provided companionship and help the elderly Frank with household tasks. At first chilly to the idea of receiving help, Frank begins to develop an interest—and eventually even an affection—for his mechanical housemate when it becomes apparent that it just might be able to help him pull off one last score. A unique exploration of AI and robotics, the film won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted.
Where to Watch: Hulu
The 2022 Sloan Film Summit is happening April 8-10 in Los Angeles. Stay tuned (or whatever you do with a website) to sloanfilmsummit.org for programming updates, videos, blog recaps and more.