French-Venezuelan biologist and filmmaker Alexis Gambis, whose sophomore drama, “Son of Monarchs,” screens in t Sundance’s NEXT section, has always been fixated on the confluence of art and science. It led him to found the Imagine Science Film Festival, which enters its 14th edition in October, and the five-year old VOD platform Labocine, both of which showcase science in film and seek to further the discourse among scientists, artists and educators.
In December, Sundance bestowed its 2021 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize on the semi-autobiographical drama, which the jury cited “for its poetic, multilayered portrait of a scientist’s growth and self-discovery as he migrates between Mexico and New York City.”
For lead Tenoch Huerta, who plays a villain in the upcoming “Black Panther II,” portraying a scientist on “Monarchs” was a far cry from his previous roles in such projects as Netflix’s drug trafficking series “Narcos,” and migrant caravan drama, “Sin Nombre.” “We spent some time training him at the lab,” said Gambis, who shot the macro photography lab scenes himself.
After his grandmother dies, Huerta’s character, an immigrant biologist working in New York, returns to his hometown, which is situated by the Monarch butterfly forests of Michoacan, Mexico. There he is compelled to face the traumas of his past and his own mixed identity. “Son of Monarchs” held its Mexican premiere at the region’s prestigious Morelia Intl. Film Festival last year. The Film Sales Company handles worldwide sales.
To prepare for his feature, Gambis made three short documentaries revolving around the Monarch butterfly, long considered the symbol of migrants for their 3,000 plus journey from Canada to central Mexico, where they spend the winter. One of the earlier scenes in “Son of Monarchs” show millions clustered on the trees of a Monarch butterfly sanctuary, where Gambis used his scientist creds to access an area closed off to the general public.
The Monarch butterflies are also known as Las Muertitas in Mexico, where they are meant to represent the souls of the dead as they usually fly in just as the country’s Day of the Dead festivities begin in early November. Gambis also hopes to call attention to the plight of the Monarch butterflies, whose numbers are being decimated from the overuse of pesticides and the impact of climate change, which have been devastating its only food source, the milkweed plant.
Gambis is now in Madrid to conduct some research and shoot a few clips for his next project, “El Beso” (“The Kiss”), about Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the first Spanish scientist to receive a Nobel Prize.