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Trip to the cinema

Red carpets, glossy celebrities, lavish awards. Not at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF). The paparazzi and French canapés you would expect when the world of film comes into town have been replaced by a cinephile congregation with debate and the best of British film from all genres at its heart. Among the copious choice there was one category that attracted scientists in particular. The festival’s ‘reel science strand’ offered a rich catalogue of neuroscience-based productions. One of the highlights was an evening of moving short films and a discussion on living with Alzheimer’s disease - the ‘Disappearing Act’.

What surprised me most was the notable absence of actual science in the three hour marathon of short films and discussion, presented by Rich Pickings. The ‘Disappearing Act’ mostly bypassed the science behind the demise of the brain and instead questioned the depressing certainty of old age. One of the films, ‘Irene’, was named after a sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease and was produced by her granddaughter. It serves as a potent reminder of the difficulties families face caring for their elderly relatives. The documentary wasn’t particularly well made, with its camera work questionable compared to the slick montages of the other short films on offer. Still it was one of the highlights of the evening, as it was Irene and her charming personality who stole the show.

A discussion followed the presentation of the short films, which included Irene’s daughter and granddaughter, along with Lynda Hogg, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006. For EIFF to give those who suffer with Alzheimer’s and their carers the opportunity to publicly speak out is “very brave”, Lynda Hogg said. In fact, film “is such a powerful medium”, said Dr Ailsa Cook, a lecturer at the School of Health and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. In the end, it was the expression on the faces of those with Alzheimer’s that had the greatest impact on the audience, telling a story of loneliness and a departure from a life they once had.

From a civilised discussion on Alzheimer’s to ‘The Terminator’

The second event I attended asked, ‘Can robots really have rational thought?’ like the ‘Terminator’ in Arnold Schwarzernegger’s eighties classic. The irony of this question pervades two hours of an artificially intelligent being destroying street after street in Los Angeles for a reason which is lost in the mirage of violence. But can you really take science in a film like this seriously? In one scene, James Cameron’s Hollywood blockbuster seems to both break the law of conservation of energy and defy the law of gravity. Still, many would simply call that entertainment, and maybe they’re right: perhaps scientific undertones of movies which do not claim to be based on reality shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Real-life artificial intelligence researchers Austin Tate and Sethu Vijayakumar led a stimulating discussion, which touched on the fact that the morals of James Cameron’s film should remind scientists who are developing modern robots of what they should avoid. If you look hard enough, past its gregarious exterior and sensationalist script, the film poses ethical questions to scientists who tinker with life. The result of such tinkering, although exaggerated by Hollywood, could have disastrous consequences. ‘When science goes wrong’ is still a popular genre for the film studios, with movies such as ‘I, Robot’ proving a blockbuster hit. No other film of this genre has been seen more often than the 1931 horror movie ‘Frankenstein’, which is so familiar to sci-fi lovers it is often mistaken as non-fiction. Frankenstein, a doctor who is trying to discover a way to make the dead walk, ends up creating a monster. Based on a novel by Mary Shelley, the story is often defined by its film adaptation, which produced countless iconic images.

What to take from the ‘reel science strand’?

Do scientists have the right to be angry when film gets the science wrong, opting for a sensationalist version of reality to sell more tickets? They do when a film, which claims to be based on fact, is riddled with inaccuracies. However, when science acts simply as a platform and excluding all rationality and opting for stunning visuals results in a succinct script focused to please the audience. We can only hope that the general public also understands this distinction and doesn’t expect scientists to work miracles. A perfect example of Hollywood blockbusters which take science to the fictional extreme are superhero movies. Should synthetic biologists squirm when they see Marvel Comic's, ‘Spiderman’? This is a story in which the superhero's alter ego, Peter Parker, is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and turns into a New York crime fighter with superpowers. The reality is that the largest readership of comics amongst adults are scientists themselves.

Also on offer at the EIFF, was a production asking if one day it will be possible to know whether you will develop Alzhemiers and diseases like it, through new generation brain imaging. ‘Oi! Get your grubby hands out of my brain’, posed ethical questions on the future of medicine. Another sci-fi classic shown at this year’s festival was Douglas Trumbulls, ‘Brainstorm’ featuring Holloywoods iconic actress Natalie Woods which featured a discussion with Professor Stephen Lawrie from Edinburgh University’s Centre of Clinical brain.

This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival didn't just showcase the latest movies ready for distribution. It also celebrated small screen art productions and showed an appreciation of the contribution science has made and continues to make to film. Including the 'reel science' strand attracted more scientists and people interested in science, and the EIFF is better for it.

Yassen Abbas is an undergraduate student in chemical engineering

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