Obsessed with film, mathematician makes movie about obsession

Ever since she was a little girl growing up in Russia, UC Berkeley mathematician Olga Holtz has been obsessed with filmmaking. Now that she has achieved tenure, there is more time to pursue her directorial dream. Holtz is premiering her first short film, “The Zahir,” for an invitation-only audience on Aug. 28 at the Pacific Film Archive.

One-minute trailer for ‘The Zahir,’ written and directed by UC Berkeley math professor Olga Holtz.

Shot on the Berkeley campus earlier this year, the 15-minute drama – what she calls “a fantasy/reflection about Cal” – weaves a complex tale of an arrogant psychology professor and his obsession with a mysterious book and an equally mysterious and striking Indian woman. A seemingly crazy physicist and other dimensions also make an appearance.

The film was inspired by a short story of the same name by Argentinian magical realist and poet Jorge Luis Borges that deals with people’s obsessions that border on insanity. In Islamic folklore, a zahir is an object that can create an obsession so intense, it blocks out reality.

“I thought it was a good concept since, as scientists, we get extremely obsessed about things,” she said.

The film also addresses stereotypes, like that of the crazy physicist (who, in the film, turns out not to be crazy), something Holtz is familiar with and focuses on in her freshman seminar, “Mathematics in Film and Fiction.

“I like to play with stereotypes, like the nerdy physicists in the Big Bang Theory. These stereotypes are there for a reason, but it is easy to get carried away with them, like the one that all Russians drink vodka,” she said. “Being a woman in mathematics, I have to deal with stereotypes so much, it is unbelievable.”

She is one of only three tenured women professors in Berkeley’s mathematics department, but she noted that many mostly male fields, including physics, suffer from similar stereotypes.

“I think many people have in the back of their minds, though they do not say it out loud, the question, ‘Why would a woman do math?’,” she said. “I take it with a huge grain of salt.”

Choosing between film and math

That stereotype hasn’t hindered Holtz’s career. Her early interest in film and her success in mathematics made for a hard choice when it came time to decide where to go to college. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when her family lost all its savings, she heeded her parents’ advice and pursued a more pragmatic field in which she excelled – mathematics – and gave up her dream of attending the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow.

Holtz with producer Petr Jankular

Holtz consults with producer Petr Jankular during filming in the Doe’s Morrison Library in February.

Graduating in 1995 with a degree in applied math from Southern Ural State University in Chelyabinsk, she completed her Ph.D. in mathematics in 2000 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and came to UC Berkeley in 2004 as a Morrey Assistant Professor. In 2006, she received the prestigious Sofja Kovalevskaja Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin, which led to a joint professorship between Berkeley and the Technical University Berlin. Her field is numerical analysis – applying numerical methods to solving practical problems – and this fall she will teach an introductory analysis course for incoming math graduate students.

She first dipped a toe in cinema when on sabbatical in 2009-2010 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, one of the world’s foremost scientific “think tanks” and the home of Albert Einstein in the last 22 years of his life. She discovered how productive she could be without teaching duties: in one year she wrote four math papers, plus a full length movie script called “Dark Matter.” It is based on the book by Israeli mathematician and writer Aner Shalev, who praised her initial treatment. That script is still in rewrite, with the help of colleagues she has met through script writing classes.

She really dove into writing and directing last year, however, after seeing Abel Gance’s 1927 silent film, “Napoleon,“ which she said “used every single trick in film – moving cameras, fast cuts – at a time when everything was low-tech. It was so inspiring, I said, ‘I have to do a film.'”

Holtz’s Indiegogo pitch for the film, ‘The Zahir.’

As luck would have it, she was able to focus on “The Zahir” this year because she did not have to teach regular classes during spring semester. She used her own savings, plus funds from an Indiegogo campaign and a post-production grant from the Die Junge Akademie in Germany, to pay costs, though many of her fellow film students volunteered their time.

“Some of my colleagues probably think I am crazy,” she said, noting how hard it is to squeeze filmmaking into the hectic schedule of a professor at one of the world’s top mathematics departments. She isn’t the first Berkeley math professor to make a film, however. Edward Frenkel wrote and performed in a 26-minute movie, “Rites of Love and Math,“ which premiered in Paris and the United States in 2010.

If all goes well at the premiere, Holtz hopes to submit her film to short-feature festivals around the world, and continue to work on her scriptwriting, producing and directing skills.

“I really had such an amazing time directing, but I still have to learn a lot more about being an efficient director,” she said.

Holtz laughed when asked if she would give up mathematics for film.

“In principle, I can imagine this, though I would probably do math as a hobby,” she said. “I take things as they come. It is too early to worry about that.”