During her first visit to an insect lab where her father is deciphering the fundamental laws of genetics, 10-year-old Betsey is initially reluctant to enter this fly world but eventually steps in deeply, receiving an unorthodox education. She is both perplexed and fascinated by how her father applies his genetic research to his games of seduction. In the heat of his excitement, Calvin crosses the line leaving young Betsey traumatized by the time spent with him. Glimpses of Betsey at 21, mourning her father’s death, and in old age reveal how this complex relationship, both nourishing and damaging, informs her transition to adult life.
The Fly Room is a sweeping, yet intimate portrait of the complicated relationship between Calvin Bridges, father of modern genetics, and his wide-eyed, ten-year-old daughter Betsey. The story helps bring to life one of the most important scientific laboratories of the 20th Century, taking place predominantly in one location: the original Fly Room laboratory at Columbia University.
The story is portrayed from Betsey’s perspective at the ages of ten and twenty-one, with a coda featuring the real Betsey at ninety-five. The younger Betsey personifies the curiosity that science brings out in all of us and she allows us to move freely back and forth between the pragmatic scientific space and a magical realm where flies and humans mingle. Uninhibited by her struggle to understand the oddities that inhabit the unfamiliar scientific laboratory, Betsey asks questions that clarify difficult scientific concepts. At the forefront of the film is a dramatic narrative about a girl’s quest to understand her father through his research, but the story at the same time emphasizes the importance of model organisms, such as the fly, in understanding universal laws of science and how that speaks to our identity and who we are.
By revisiting her memories at the time of her father’s death, the twenty-year old Betsey acknowledges the impact that her father’s work in genetics had and the irony of his inability to understand his genetic role within the family. Betsey is ultimately able to resolve the confusion about her relationship with her father and, by escaping painful memories from their time together, grant herself the freedom to evolve beyond her tormented childhood and pursue a life of her own with her fiancé Ed. For her 95th birthday, Betsey surrounds herself with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, demonstrating the true emotional depth and power that genetics can hold.
The Directors Statement Continued
Late at night in bed, an 8-year-old boy turns on the lights of his 'READ-IN-THE-DARK' glasses, the winner of the honorary invention award at the 1988 Brooklyn Prospect Park Science Fair. A 25-year-old graduate student in New York brings a girl into the dark microscope room and, with sweaty, nervous hands typical of a first date, adjusts the microscope’s focus/zoom to reveal the fluorescently-lit cells of the fruit fly eye. Science in some way, shape or form has been present in the most vivid moments of my life.Telling stories about science and technology and how they relate to our everyday lives has been my true calling. Science, film and a few drops of imagination constitute the perfect mélange to convey the most personal stories about my life. During my PhD when I was asked "why do you work on fruit flies,” I made my first documentary. Called A Fruit Fly in New York, it illustrated the connections between the fruit fly, genetics and New York City, from the point of view of a young scientist.
Ten years later, I embark on the most important film project to date. My first feature, The Fly Room, blends my passions for research and filmmaking and resonates with me in many ways. It straddles the lines of documentary and fiction, mixing objective scientific perspectives with surreal and magical worlds, and also breaks down the stereotypes about scientists making them more human and relatable.
Alexis Gambis, Writer & Director