movie theatre

Movie Stars Meet Research Rockstars

From aliens to addiction to internet security, many of the films at the Toronto International Film Festival are related to current scientific research.


Last weekend, Toronto was inundated with directors and movie stars as the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival officially kicked off.  And although it may not be on your mind as you scroll through the titles, many of this years’ movies are related to current Canadian research.

Arrival; Director: Denis Villeneuve

What are the odds that the first alien visitors to our planet will speak English?  When twelve mysterious spacecraft land on earth, linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks is recruited by the US military to find out what they want.  Dissecting and interpreting a sentence has never been this exciting.

If aliens came today, Professor Daniela O’Neill from the University of Waterloo might be helping interpret the unknown language.  O’Neill studies language development in children and believes that language is a culmination of many different kinds of knowledge, such as social knowledge, cognitive knowledge, and knowledge of others.  What better way to gain insight into an alien society?

The Stairs; Director: Hugh Gibson

This documentary follows three staff members from the Regent Park Community Health Centre in Toronto – an area that became infamous for drug use.  It paints a picture of the lasting effects of addiction and conditions that can exacerbate the issue such as poverty and homelessness.

Professor Stephen Hwang from the University of Toronto focuses on improving healthcare for people who are homeless and marginalized to try and combat the pull of addiction.  Rachel Tyndale, on the other hand is trying to discover what makes some people more prone to addiction than others.

Blair Witch; Director: Adam Wingard

A new, found-footage thriller revives the concept of the original movie series.  Three friends venture into the woods in search of a missing sister, but they don’t go empty-handed.  They’re armed with GPS-enabled cameras, microphones, and even a drone to root out potential ghosts.  And though science may not be able to explain the Blair Witch, there are many scientific theories to explain other stories of ghostly apparitions.

Black Code; Director: Nicholas de Pencier

Just like Kevin Haggerty’s research at the University of Alberta, this documentary examines privacy in the internet age.  It references, The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs – one of the few organizations considering the social and political impacts of the worldwide web.

But even as the internet challenges our privacy, there are those like Michele Mosca at the University of Waterloo that are working to keep our information secure.  Mosca is developing cryptographic tools that will be safe, even against the most advanced quantum computers.

Marie Curie, The Courage of Knowledge; Director: Marie Noëlle

Ok, so maybe the science in this one is pretty obvious.  But who doesn’t love the story of Marie Curie, a woman who challenged the male-dominated French world of academia by, not only winning the Nobel Prize, but winning it twice?  Since Curie’s time, there has been a lot of progress for women in science, technology, engineering, and math, the fields of study known collectively as STEM, but we are still far from equality.

Inspiring female role models are still essential to support and encourage girls in pursuing STEM careers and we’ve got plenty to choose from.  How about Penney Gilbert from the University of Toronto who just won the Ontario Early Research Award.  Or Victoria Kaspi, a physicist at McGill and the first woman to win the Herzberg Medal.  Who knows, maybe one of these women will have a TIFF film made about their discoveries.

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.