By Anita Malhotra
Award-winning investigative journalists Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster have been getting a lot of positive buzz about their first feature film collaboration, Science Fair.
Full of humor and deftly crafted, the inspiring film follows nine extraordinary teenagers vying against 1,700 others to win coveted prizes at one of the world’s largest international science fairs.
The film has played to almost unanimous acclaim, winning audience awards at several film festivals, including Sundance and South by Southwest (SXSW). In April 2018, Science Fair was acquired by National Geographic, who are distributing it in cinemas and schools and plan to broadcast it in 2019.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Costantini and Foster, who are based in Los Angeles, on Nov. 6, 2018, a few days before Science Fair began its Nov. 9-18 run at Ottawa’s Bytowne Cinema.
AM: Can you each tell me a bit about your career before Science Fair?
DF: Both of us were journalists before we became filmmakers. I did a lot of TV docs. The opioid crisis, immigration and the drug war were probably my primary areas of focus over the last 10 years or so.
So it was a bit of a departure for me to do something like Science Fair, but it was a much needed and very happy departure. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been partnered with Cristina on a previous project.
CC: Darren and I worked on a project about fentanyl together, which is a deadly opiate that has made both the U.S. and Canada’s opiate epidemic much more deadly. That was, like it sounds, a very sad story.
And I had done also a lot of reporting on immigration and sex trafficking and prisons and detention centers. So, like Darren, I was ready for a break. And it was actually during the fentanyl documentary that we started talking about this idea of doing a science fair documentary.
I was a science fair kid when I was in high school, and it totally changed my life, and it validated me during the dark years of high school. I learned just so much from it and I’m really in love with this world.
We started talking about how fun it would be to go to the fair and scout the characters and tell the story. So we went to the 2016 fair, and that’s where we met many of the kids that are in the movie.
AM: Can you tell me about the particular science fair your film is about?
DF: The International Science and Engineering Fair [ISEF] is the Olympics of science fairs. 1,700 kids from 78 different countries around the world all convene at a convention center in some major American city. So for a week it’s maybe the highest concentration of brains in the world.
Many of these kids are misfits in high school, not always recognized or celebrated for their brains and for the work they do in science. But for one week a year, if they make it there, they really get celebrated in an amazing way. For a documentary subject it’s pretty great to follow the kids on this journey because it is life-changing for so many of them.
CC: You might think that because they’re teenagers that they’re doing baking soda volcano type science, but they’re doing really incredible, amazing science that is going to change the world – and much of it already has.
There are 500 patents that came out of the fair that we covered alone. I think it’s really inspiring to watch 14-year-old brains do this really high-level research, and they’re not waiting for adults to teach them this stuff. Most of these kids are self-taught. They’ve learned how to do the things that they’re doing online. And so it’s really fun to be around that energy.
AM: Can you describe a couple of the youths featured in the film and their projects?
DF: I think Kashfia is the emotional heart of the film. She’s a young woman from Brookings, South Dakota – one of the few Muslims in a pretty middle-class community in the middle of America.
Like many high schools in the U.S., it’s obsessed with sports and she doesn’t get much recognition or validation for all the amazing work she does. And she has this amazing journey where she, basically all on her own – with the mentorship of the head football coach –makes it to the international science fair.
CC: Robbie was failing out of math when we met him, but on the side he was working on a prime number theory project that had won the entire West Virginia state science fair. And there was this joy in learning and exploration and innovation that we sensed in him. I think his Kanye West algorithm really embodies that.
He continues to do incredible amazing things that you don’t see in our documentary. He’s gone on to do AI generated artwork that’s been on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek. He had an art show in Paris in February. And he still has not been able to get into any colleges.
He’s guest lecturing right now at Stanford but can’t get into Stanford. So he’s a really interesting indication of failure in our education system to foster brilliant minds who are not interested in the kind of rote memorization that a lot of our American schools push. And you find a lot of kids like Robbie at Science Fair. A lot of these self-starters who don’t quite fit in.
AM: What was your process of narrowing down your subjects to the nine young people who are featured in the film?
DF: This is where being reporters was really helpful. We burned some shoe leather at the 2016 fair walking up and down the aisles talking to as many kids as we could. And then there were a lot of phone calls, a lot of Skype chats, a lot of visiting regional, local fairs – calling different schools around the country.
We were looking for a fairly good representation of the kind of kids that wound up at ISEF. So that includes powerhouse schools like duPont Manual in Kentucky and Jericho High School on Long Island –always churning out these amazing kids. And then it was a bit of luck finding some of the underdog characters like Kashfia and Robbie.
AM: What was your main challenge in shooting the film?
CC: I think one of the challenges was keeping up with that many kids and with all their storylines. In a competition documentary, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so we had to place some bets and some of them didn’t work out.
One of our favorite kids was supposed to do a science fair project. We got to Louisville, where he went to high school, and he told us the day before the science fair that he, in fact, hadn’t done the project, which gave us a lot of difficulties.
But then he said, “You should meet my friends – they’re doing a really cool project.” And we had to very quickly change course. So I think our biggest difficulty was that we couldn’t predict what was going to happen. We had to be flexible, and because we had such a small crew, that was much easier.
AM: Did the election of Donald Trump affect the direction of your film?
DF: We set out to make a film that was about the science fair, but along the way the backdrop that the film was playing against changed so much. The politics of this country have taken a turn where some of our characters were in the middle of some of these heated debates – the travel ban, the anti-Muslim sentiment, the anti-immigration sentiment.
We have a lot of immigrants and children of immigrants in our film. Also, the anti-science sentiment in many aspects of this country. These are all things that took on a different resonance as we were following these kids on that journey.
AM: Science Fair has won audience awards at two major festivals. What was it like to be in those screenings and see the audience response?
CC: Nobody is more shocked than we are that it’s resonated with audiences as well as it has. It was supposed to be a quick break from our investigative work, and now it’s become the majority of our time for a few years.
The first time we ever saw it with a group of people was at a volunteer screening at Sundance, and it was one of the most surreal moments of my life to hear an audience laughing at something that I’d created. I’d never watched anything with an audience that I’d created before, much less anything happy.
DF: I think it’s also a testament to how amazing these kids are and to how powerful their stories are. I think the film is very much an antidote to the times that we’re living in. And to see these teenagers reflecting the best of who we are, I think is what audiences are really responding to.
CC: It’s been just a wonderful experience to be doing something so happy and uplifting – especially during a time when there are so many adults who are acting like children in this world. To do something about children who are acting like adults and serve as a really great example of who we could be as a nation.
AM: How did National Geographic get involved with the film?
CC: After we won the Sundance and the SXSW audience awards, they purchased the film. And they have been amazing at distributing it. What we love most about working with National Geographic is that they made a huge push to get it in front of kids and into schools, so in November they’re actually giving it away for free to any school that wants to see it.
Over a thousand schools have already signed up. We made it in large part to make people aware of how fun this world is, and celebrate these kids, and get more kids involved in this world. So it’s been so awesome that they’ve taken the project on.
AM: Are you working on any other projects right now or is all your time devoted to this film?
DF: We have a bunch of ideas that we’re developing, but quite frankly we’ve been so busy promoting the film and being out with the film that we haven’t had much time to think about what’s next.
At the moment we’re just really enjoying touring with the film, especially when we get to go to these schools and show it in front of a bunch of other teenagers, so it’s been great.
Science Fair is currently playing in theatres in the U.S., the U.K and Canada, including at Ottawa’s Bytowne Cinema Nov. 9-18 and Dec. 16-18. Through the month of November, schools in the U.S. can request a free screening of the film from National Geographic. For more information about the film, please visit National Geographic or Muck Media.