• Reechal Mevada

FictionFinder: A conversation with Alexis Gambis

Updated: Apr 24

Alexis Gambis, a French-Venezuelan biologist, filmmaker and a TED 2019 Fellow, whom I met at the Imagine Science Film Festival, shared his insights into the Science New Wave via a Zoom video interview with Fictionmapper.

He is currently in post-production of his second feature SON OF MONARCHS which delves into issues of immigration, migration and animal-human hybrids. His first feature film THE FLY ROOM is based on the true story of the birth of modern genetics at the turn of the 20th century.

Alexis Gambis in his Brooklyn apartment with his cat Ringo: Photo by Linda Arredondo

Alexis Gambis is the Founder & Executive Director of the Imagine Science Film Festival, an annual New York science film festival now in its 13th year. He also recently launched Labocine, a VOD platform and film magazine coined by reviewers as the "Netflix for science" which proposes a new way to experience science cinema by hybridizing forms and fostering collaborations between scientists and artists.

He received a Master of Fine Arts from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and a PhD in Molecular Biology from The Rockefeller University. He is an Assistant Professor of Biology, Film & New Media at New York University in Abu Dhabi where he teaches part of the year courses at the intersection of biology and cinema. One of his classes ‘Docufiction’ allows students to explore science fiction in documentary films.

He lives between Brooklyn, Paris and Abu Dhabi.

As a creative writer for spotlights – Labocine, I have been exploring topics around the ethics of technology which actually inspired me to create fictionmapper. It has been an honour to collaborate with Alexis Gambis on science fiction articles, graphic design for the Imagine Science Film Festival as well as images of the US Mexico border and butterfly scales for his upcoming film.

Microscopic Image of a Monarch butterfly wing (credit: Alexis Gamnbis & Arnaud Martin)

[FICTIONMAPPER] Which is your favorite film that is no one else’s?

[Alexis Gambis] I have been asked that a few times, it’s tricky but my favorite kind of films are the ones that play with magical realism. A filmmaker I love is Alain Resnais - a kind of a science fiction filmmaker from the 60s, a part of the French New Wave (a cinema club in France). Hiroshima Mon Amour and My American Uncle are some of my favorite films. Alian was really interested in collaborating with biologists, economists and behavioral scientists and his films are often these meditations on memory and also on dystopian features. One of his films I absolutely love is this bold, experimental film ‘Je t’aime, Je t'aime’ which is a story of a man who enters a time travel machine and some of his memories play on loop.

[FICTIONMAPPER] What trait or quirk defines the image of you?

[Alexis Gambis] I switch languages all the time. My dad is French, mom is Venezuelan and I grew up in a public school in Brooklyn and then moved to France at the age of nine – so if I don’t speak all three languages (English, Spanish and French) in a long conversation, I feel like I haven’t completed my daily exercise. Speaking different languages is a way I bring out different parts of my personality because in every language I am very different. That’s also the reason why I enjoy living in different countries, I split my time in New York, France and Abu Dhabi and was recently in Mexico for my film.

[FICTIONMAPPER] What is your most frightful recurring dream?

[Alexis Gambis] I guess it’s typical, but I have a recurring dream of drowning and it’s something I have integrated into one of the characters of my movie. Another one would be of an insect. I spent most of my 20s looking at insects under a microscope (as a scientist) and I would get dreams about being a big insect walking around my apartment, even sleeping next to my girlfriend at that time. I became that magnified insect and ended up making a film ‘Courtship.’

[FICTIONMAPPER] Which is your favorite childhood book?

[Alexis Gambis] As a child, I was obsessed with Roald Dahl. I even wrote him a letter, he never responded to me because he passed away at the time I wrote it and I was devastated. My films are about magical realism, so I am definitely inspired by his books like the Witches, the BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

8-year old Alexis writes a letter to Roald Dahl, 1989

[FICTIONMAPPER] What inspired you to create the Imagine Science Film Festival/Labocine?

[Alexis Gambis] I was a third year phD student at The Rockefeller University in New York and I was making some short films in the laboratory as a hobby. I wanted to create a festival that would bring together scientists, artists and filmmakers. I didn’t necessarily imagine it to be a science community but rather a platform to collaborate and showcase the many ways you can communicate science in film. It started as a film series where I would show films in my University and we would have discussions. Slowly, I started making my own films and that led me to pitch the idea of a science film festival to a few museums in New York. Most people didn’t show interest, some laughed but we did get a few good responses from scientists and eventually got backing from Nature Magazine. I initially started the festival with my friend Kate Jeffrey who now runs an immunology lab at Harvard University. Science is culture, it’s a part of everyday life. Initially we thought of Labocine as an archive to the festival and soon realized it could be more than that, i.e. a streaming platform and a magazine. We realized that it was a huge opportunity because the current online platforms do not include science fiction feature/short films.

[FICTIONMAPPER] Imagine Science Film Festival is in its 13th year now – how has it changed over time?

[Alexis Gambis] We have bigger audiences and more submissions now. We have more power to select films and orient the festival into different topics we are interested in. Earlier, it was harder to look for content. And over the few years, we have explored ways in which people can collaborate in film. We started this new initiative called Habitat which is an online community for artists, musicians, scientists and filmmakers.

[FICTIONMAPPER] Could you share something about your current project?

[Alexis Gambis] ‘Sons of Monarchs’ is in its post-production now. I got the idea six years ago and it took over fourteen months to complete filming. It merges topics of immigration -- what does it mean to live in a city that is not yours with topics of animal migration, borders, race and colours from micro to macro level – butterfly to society, breaking stereotypes.

Tentative poster of MOUSETRAP

I am also getting ready to shoot for Mousetrap which is about a neuroscientist trying to recreate memories of the past. Usually before I shoot the feature film, I make a few short films to test my idea. I recently completed two short films on basis of this feature - Deja vu which is about memory and the relationship between the father and his son and ‘627’ which is about my father entering his Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment number 627 after thirty years. The reason it’s called Mousetrap is because most of the scientific experiments of memory are tested on mice or rats.

Alexis and his father Alain Gambis - from DEJA VU

Alexis in his childhood room in Park Slope : Photo by Renee Xie

[FICTIONMAPPER] How has living in Brooklyn, Paris and Abu Dhabi influenced your work?

[Alexis Gambis] A lot of my work includes cross cultural experiences. I am very interested in how countries explore the line between science and fiction. I show a lot of films that tackle science fiction through these weird pieces - I’ve made a film about an animal that speaks Arabic (in Abu Dhabi), another film in Mexico that mixes animal rituals with science, and I’m also working on a film of a computer that is a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu.

Still from Murine Montage showing an 8-year old Alexis and a rodent maze experiment

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