Sundance’s Sloan Feature Film Winner Embrace of the Serpent

There are only five juried prizes awarded at the Sundance Film Festival, one of which is sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Sloan Feature Film Prize is presented to a narrative film that tackles science and technology themes or characters. The 2016 prize goes to the dramatic feature EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, directed by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra. The film is inspired by the journals of two German scientists who travel the Colombian Amazon in search of a sacred plant. The 2016 selection committee, which also discussed science and film on a panel during the festival, included industry professionals with Sloan ties as well as notable scientists. The committee presented the award to the film for its “original and provocative portrait of a scientist and a scientific journey into the unknown, and for its unconventional depiction of how different cultures seek to understand nature.”

The committee was comprised of: Actress Kerry Bishé who is featured on the television series HALT & CATCH FIRE, covered on Science & Film. She was also host to the 2015 Sloan-Sundance Science in Film Forum that took place in New York at Neue House. Mike Cahill, whose film I ORIGINS won the Sloan prize two years ago, and whose first feature film ANOTHER EARTH won the Sloan prize in 2011, joined her. Shane Caruth, whose film PRIMER won in 2004 joined them. The three film professionals were complemented by two scientists—Clifford Johnson, a USC physics professor, and Ting Wu a professor of genetics and space genetics at Harvard.

The Sloan Foundation said, “we are delighted to recognize Ciro Guerra’s poetic work EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT as the winner of the 2016 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. This beautiful film depicts the scientist as unconventional explorer and an encounter between two cultures that leads to a deeper understanding of nature and new scientific knowledge, research which continues to this day. In a year with such fine Oscar-nominated films as THE MARTIAN, STEVE JOBS, and JOY, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT shows how the boldest and most gifted filmmakers continue to find innovative ways of telling stories with scientific themes and characters.” Director Ciro Guerra and Producer Cristina Gallego were at Sundance to accept the $20,000 cash award, and were honored at a reception at the High West Distillery.

In addition to the $20,000 Feature Film Prize, the Sloan Foundation awarded two grants to projects in development which will receive year-round support from the Sundance Institute. The $15,000 Sloan Fellowship went to THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS, adapted from a Richard Powers novel about the mysterious disappearance of a scientist. The film will be directed by Mark Levinson, of the Sloan-supported documentary PARTICLE FEVER. The Sloan Commissioning Grant went to BELL, by Dyana Winkler and Darcy Brislin who each received $12,500. The script is based on the true story of inventor and controversial figure Alexander Graham Bell.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation supports the Sundance Institute Science-in-Film Initiative which, in addition to the feature film prize and panel at the festival, awards a Commissioning Grant and a Lab fellowship each year to two projects in development. Previous winners have included THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, ANOTHER EARTH, PRIMER, and COMPUTER CHESS. New this year, the institute is adding a fellowship for a writer with an episodic project. Check back on Science & Film for interviews with award-winning filmmakers.