Science and Cinema Meet in Alexis Gambis Film Masterclass


Professors at AUP regularly invite experts into the classroom to enhance the learning experience by offering students new points of view from professionals working in international careers. These speakers are often interdisciplinarians, as AUP’s academic approach encourages the understanding of complex issues from the perspective of multiple fields.

In this vein, film studies students recently had the opportunity to engage with French–Venezuelan filmmaker Alexis Gambis, whose science-inspired cinema also explores themes of migration, identity and belonging. Gambis was on campus on Tuesday, March 14, 2023, and hosted a filmmaking masterclass for students along with a technical workshop exploring filmmaking across different scales and an exclusive screening of his work. “I thought the three-act structure to the day was a wonderful model for future guest speakers,” says Gambis.

Gambis is part of a filmmaking movement known as the Science New Wave, which is characterized by a rejection of traditional scientific film conventions in favor of experimentation and personal expression. In 2008, he founded the Imagine Science Film Festival, which showcases international science cinema and hosts annual festivals in New York, Paris and Abu Dhabi. In 2016, he launched the festival’s sister portal, Labocine: an on-demand video platform connecting scientists, artists and educators across the world.

The masterclass was part of a new series of similar opportunities organized by Isabelle Carbonell and Emre Caglayan, the two professors behind Film at AUP, which aims to highlight the importance of film studies' position in AUP's liberal arts curriculum. Carbonell explains that she hoped Gambis’s hybrid background would show students how scientific and artistic approaches can be combined to create exciting story possibilities. “Alexis embodies the spirit of interdisciplinarity,” she says. “He uses the modalities of a scientist and filmmaker equally and uniquely to imagine new ways of understanding the world.”

After an initial lecture in which he explained his background and approach to filmmaking, Gambis asked students to head out into the city for a practical workshop centered on shooting the natural world. “What particularly impressed me was the film students’ interest in mixed media and blending documentary and fiction,” says Gambis. “It speaks highly of AUP’s classes that they felt comfortable in this world of film experimentation.”

Students explored how scale helps reframe the way filmmakers create stories about natural landscapes; they captured images at both the macro and micro levels, using a specialized camera attachment, then came together to discuss how these images complemented one another. “It had never occurred to me how similar film and science were until Alexis’s class,” explains Sterling Knight, a first-year majoring in film studies. “My mind was flipped upside down in the best way, and the class left me inspired to continue looking into the Science New Wave and the films that are a part of it.”

In the evening, students, along with AUP staff and faculty and other invited guests, attended a screening of Gambis’s 2020 film, Son of Monarchs (Hijo de Monarcas). It tells the story of a Mexican biologist named Mendel (played by Tenoch Heurta), who, while studying for a PhD in New York, returns to his hometown in the monarch butterfly forests of Michoacán to attend his grandmother’s funeral. This cross-border journey forces Mendel to confront past traumas and reflect on his own evolving identity, leading to a personal transformation that mirrors a butterfly’s metamorphosis.

In a Q&A following the screening, Gambis noted how the film’s scientific elements, which include close-ups of chrysalis dissections and similar biological experiments, are used to express the main character’s struggles with his hybrid identity as well as the passion and emotion he feels toward the natural world on a macro scale. “I was interested in comparing borders between countries to the colors in butterfly wings,” explains Gambis, commenting on the movie’s magical-realist elements. The film engages with complex scientific concepts, such as the genome-editing tool CRISPR, in the context of a deeply personal character study.