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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

WEEKENDER: The 2023 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival showed nerdom at its roots

The TARDIS from "Doctor Who" (1963–) is pictured.

If one were to stand next to the Somerville Theater on the night of Feb. 15, they would probably think the building was closed. No lights, no sounds and only the cold air blowing in their faces to provide any semblance of movement in the area. Yet just one door over in the theater’s own recently revamped Crystal Ballroom, the sci-fi community of the greater Boston area was throwing the party of the year. The chandelier-clad room was bathed in blue light and as a remote-controlled Mouse Droid prop rolled around the replica TARDIS in the center of the room, a dozen people lined up in a variety of “Doctor Who” (1963–) related outfits for a costume contest. This was how the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, the second oldest independent genre film festival in the country, officially opened its 48th year.

“We have a very niche audience,” Violet Acevedo, the assistant festival director of this year’s festival, said with a noticeable smile. “Nerds are very fanatical once they find something that they like and they want to devote to.”

This kind of love, in all of its weirdness, is the defining feature of the festival. From the festival volunteers who recorded panel conversations to the older and often impeccably dressed group of recurring attendees, everyone at this festival genuinely wants to be there not for status but to have fun. It’s this infectious attitude that made biking to Davis Square every day for five days straight worth it. Though it was impossible to attend every event the festival put together, the first day having to be missed in its entirety, the ones that were in line with a busy Tufts schedule showed just what this festival does best.

The second day started not with a film, but with a panel. In the backroom of Comicazi, Davis Square’s local comic shop, the directors of “Doctor Who Am I” (2022), a documentary on the infamous 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, sat with Shannon Weidermyer of DUST (a division of Gunpowder & Sky studio) and director, writer and actor Ben Myers to discuss how an unknown indie film or documentary may get distributed on a larger scale. Each member of the panel gave a detailed and impressive look into the minutia of distribution, particularly in how it applied to getting onto a streaming service or small studio like DUST. Matthew Jacobs and Vanessa Yuille, the directors of the film, gave additional commentary on what it meant to them to try and get a low-budget documentary into the public eye.

A few hours later, a screening took place, at least in a certain sense. Stuffed into the small microcinema of the Somerville Theater, a group of festival volunteers worked to put the 1988 interactive film “Isaac Asimov’s Robots” on for the crowd to participate in and laugh with (or at). After some technical difficulties, the screening eventually got underway, giving an excellent look back at ’80s sci-fi schlock in all its horrible, badly costumed robot glory.

Day 3 would see a similar set-up but would end on a more wholesome note. Another panel kicked off the day, this time set in The Burren’s backroom and featuring Jason Kaufman, Brad Elliot, TaMara Carlson Woodard and Giang N. Pham, a series of “fabricators” (artists who create props and tools for media) discussing their craft and stories from behind the camera. With experiences ranging from episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987–94) to the recent “Obi-Wan Kenobi” (2022), where the fabricator was supposedly told by Disney to decrease their requested budget since “Mandalorian season 2 used less money,” the struggle for recognition and funny anecdotes between the panelists made the discussion the most engaging of the festival.

In one of the two marquee screenings attended, the festival took its audience to the distant reaches of space and the most 2000s-looking offices. “It’s Quieter in the Twilight” (2022) was a solid documentary detailing the ongoing Voyager mission at NASA and the crew in Pasadena, California’s efforts and sacrifices to keep the mission going. An interesting look into the science and psyche of a mission of this length, the documentary thrilled the audience, which even included Voyager engineer Todd Barber.

The next day featured a continuation of the fabricator panel. Even with a revamped focus on the process of fabrication itself, it remained incredibly entertaining. Later, in the second major screening attended, “The Antares Paradox” (2022) stunned and delighted the audience. A Spanish film about a lone member of SETI who may have discovered a signal from extraterrestrials the same night her father lies dying in a hospital, the film offered perhaps the best screening of the festival and is worth keeping an eye on for a hopeful wide release.

What followed on the next and final day was the equivalent of a nice cup of ice cream following a three-course meal. The 24-Hour Film Marathon, which in the words of Acevedo was the festival’s most well-known feature, started at 12 p.m. on a Sunday and went until 12 p.m. the following Monday. The marathon showed legendary films such as “Alien” (1979) and “Total Recall” (1990) mixed in with modern classics like “After Yang” (2021). Though only a fraction of the marathon could be attended, the casual atmosphere in the room was an excellent way to end the festival.

Looking at the crowd at any of these events, it’s not hard to notice the generally older demographics. While the youngest attendees were usually reporters, those who took time out of their day to attend the festival were predominantly in their 50s–70s. It was strange at first to sit next to them, but eventually it came together. In a world where most film festivals and conventions have become professionalized and fully funded, the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival stands out for something that can occasionally remain lacking in those other gatherings: passion. To be there is to know that you’re not seeing the next George Lucas smash or great Hollywood epic. You’re there because you want to be. Because you love science fiction, and you love being around others who do too.

“We love our nerds, we love our community and we love bringing them together,” Acevedo said. Drinking a “Rose Tyler” (sweet grenadine, ginger ale, maraschino cherries and a tiny British flag) while listening to soft ’80s British pop in the corner of a “Doctor Who”-themed ballroom, it’s hard to not see that union in practice.