Da Vinci and The Circle at Hot Docs: Science, art, and the imagination

Reviewed in this essay: Da Vinci and The Circle at Hot Docs.

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

So states the Albert Einstein epigraph that prefaces Bram Conjaerts’s documentary The Circle, which is currently playing at the Hot Docs festival in a double feature with Italian documentary Da Vinci, by Yuri Ancarani. Both films concern the boundaries between science, imagination, and art. Da Vinci screens first and is a 25-minute film that takes us into an operating room where a surgical robot named Da Vinci, alluding to the visionary artist who so often conflated science and art, performs a delicate procedure on a human patient.

The film is an incredibly visceral experience. Not a single human word is uttered as we travel via a tiny camera through the caverns of the human body. It feels  like we are in some distant alien cave that is beating with a palette of blues: indigo, ultramarine, and cobalt walls, with filaments of sapphire, azure, and blue-red veins. The cinematography is a fantastic dance between the human, the machine, and the world of art. We watch as a human doctor, as if playing a videogame, controls the massive arms of Da Vinci to conduct a delicate procedure on a vulnerable a human body.

Da Vinci is followed by the longer Belgian documentary The Circle, which examines those living above the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. If Da Vinci takes the perspective of the machine—the inhuman—then The Circle puts the human on full display here. You would think that the film would cover some of the science of the LHC, designed to generate a mini Big Bang, but instead it focuses on the perspectives of those people who live in the towns above the 27-kilometer-long subterranean circle along the Franco-Swiss border.

Not that there aren’t shots covering the massive machine, there are, it’s just that the film chooses to focus on the experience of those people and farmers who walk 175 meters above the LHC on a daily basis. Those perspectives include the human need to discover the origins of human life, to those who dismiss the project as a waste of time, to those who have a downright fear that the LHC will create a black hole that will destroy all life as we know it, including a well-illustrated dream from the director himself. A few perspectives from those currently working on the project, or even from some younger people (most of the interviewees were middle aged or older) would add some symmetry to the documentary. Nevertheless, the film was a pleasant reminder that scientific endeavour is often fueled by the same impetus that drives not only art, but our daily lives: the imagination.

 The Da Vinci and The Circle double feature will screen once more at this year’s Hot Docs, on Sunday, May 5, at 9:30 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre.