Surprising Sloan Split Decision at Sundance

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Park City, Utah – Filmgoers perhaps unaccustomed to the mercury in the teens and, if you are a Los Angelino, to good quality public transit, made the annual trek to Wasatch County for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival from January 20th to 29th. Among the program highlights is the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Prize for a feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character. Past winners have included Sleep Dealer, House of Sand, Obselidia, and Another Earth. This year, in an unprecedented split decision, the judges opted for two winners – and both films were chosen for very different reasons. 

Valley of SaintsValley of Saints tells a lyrical tale of two brother-like friends competing for the love of a woman set amid chaotic political instability in Kashmir. The film elegantly portrays a science student studying the human folly that has led to the slow destruction of a lake on which an entire culture depends. The student, a wealthy woman and an outsider, grows to care deeply about one of the friends as he helps her with her research. The entirely grounded nature of the storyline and the scientist’s character help to move the audience as a complex issue around the lake unfolds: human overuse has led to the deterioration of the water quality. The film’s smart depiction of a science student engaging with a problem of such enormous magnitude perfectly fits with Sloan’s goal of encouraging grounded explorations of the drama surrounding science’s role in solving big problems in society. 

Robot & FrankRobot & Frank, perhaps simpler in its politics, nonetheless equally paints an untraditional and touching tale of two characters who are affected deeply by science – one of which happens to be a robot. The film opens in the near future with an aging cat burglar suffering from dementia named (unsurprisingly) Frank, played delicately by Frank Langella, whose son presents him with a robot to act as a caregiver. The machine and the elderly man, after a period of being at odds, develop a surprising relationship that culminates around a conflict with affluent young locals who Frank feels are a bunch of “maroons.” The film’s exploration of humanity’s interaction with and attachment to devices made in its own image, and that may perhaps one day surpass real people as the caregivers of choice, leaves the audience with much food for thought about the future into which we all may one day retire. 

Without directly knowing the debate that may have occurred as this year’s Sloan panel of judges considered these two films, clearly both movies proved thought provoking and approached the Sloan Prize from very different directions. Valley of Saints may be more true to the problems that scientists face every day in their research; however, Robot & Frank playfully questions the future and uses its science to prod the viewer into thinking about the delicate balance between our physical need for machines to reduce labor and our increasing emotional dependence on those same gadgets. Both films used science (or science fiction) as a tool to evoke emotion in their stories and to express critical ideas.

In the end, the decAlfred P. Sloan Foundation Prize Panel at Sundance, 2012ision to split the prize represents exactly the spirit of the award’s purpose and the broad spectrum of Sloan’s mission. Congratulations to both films, to the Sloan judges who made what must have been a challenging decision (Tracy Day, Helen Fisher, Bob Full, Gwyn Lurie, and Alex River) and to Doron Weber from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for shepherding the Prize each year as a part of the Sundance Film Festival. We hope that all of The Exchange’s readership will have a chance to see both movies in the coming year. Please let us know what you think of their exploration of scientific themes and ideas!

Image credit: Valley of Saints and Robot & Frank

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.