An interview with Laura Nix, director and producer of INVENTING TOMORROW. The International Science and Engineering Fair is the perfect focal point for the future of environmental science.
What made you decide to do a film based around a high school science fair?
I was approached by my producers Diane Becker and Melanie Miller to make a doc about the science fair ISEF, so I attended the fair in Phoenix in 2016 to both film and scout and immediately realized there was a great story to tell there. First off it’s huge – almost 1800 kids attend, and 1000 volunteer judges show up to evaluate their projects. However, outside of the educational and science communities, most people don’t know about the fair. The sense of hopefulness and optimism there was infectious. I met some really advanced and inspiring kids whose projects just blew me away. I found I was the most struck however by kids I met who were doing research because of issues they were confronting at home – whether it was lack of clean drinking water, or air pollution, or some other type of environmental challenge. They weren’t doing research because it would be cool on their college application, but because they were deeply and personally motivated to change where they lived. Those were the kids who made me want to make the film.
How did you find and decide on the students you followed?
We started by reaching out to science teachers and fair directors all over the world, and asked them to identify students who were working on projects with an environmental theme. We then spent months interviewing hundreds of kids from all over the world. We were looking for kids who were doing science with a sense of purpose; who were addressing an environmental issue that was local and personal. I was specifically looking for issues that were visual, and for students who could clearly describe their project to an audience. We also were looking for range of environmental issues that dealt with air, water, and earth. We purposefully went beyond the scope of just climate change, so we could tell a larger story of kids engaged in environmental stewardship.
It was really important to me to create an emotional and character-based film, so I was also looking for kids who had a personal story or an obstacle that was compelling, so I could show how they were working to overcome it. We wanted diversity of region, race, and religion, and a balance of girls and boys. I traveled all over the world to meet the kids we eventually decided to film, and I followed them without having any idea of what would happen once they arrived at the fair. I spent time with all of them because I believed in them as people, and because I was fascinated by their ability to pay attention and ask the right questions about the world around them.
The film documents some pretty intense environmental destruction, all within heavily populated areas, as people are continuing to go about their daily lives. What was that experience like for you and your crew?
The reality is that if you take a closer look at where you live, most places are facing environmental degradation. In some areas, you’re affected by it in a daily way. In others it might not be as visible, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find something in your own neighborhood. I was impressed by these students’ ability to observe where they were living, and identify what needed to be fixed. Whether or not they’re able to invent a solution today, their willingness to tackle the issue is what matters.
The experience for me and my crew varied from place to place. When we first went to Bangalore to visit Sahithi PIngali, we saw lakes that had turned into fields, but it was a little hard for me to understand how serious the problem was. As Sahithi explained, you’re looking at this lake and it looks like a field, so you think, “What’s the issue?” But when you realize that this happened because of eutrophication — raw sewage being pumped into the lake — the problem reveals itself. Sahithi had described the foam caused by the untreated phosphates into the water, but when we saw it clogging streams and escaping into roadways, we really understood the severity of the issue. (One thing that doesn’t come across onscreen is how bad it smells.) Sahithi also told us that that the city used to be known as ‘the place of a thousand lakes’, and now there’s only 93 left. With millions of people depending on this water for drinking, the problem becomes increasingly dire. The fact that she was able to come up with a solution to track the data and encourage public officials to do something about it is astonishing – especially at age 16.
The place where Nuha Anfaresi lives – Bangka, Indonesia – is extraordinary, a tropical paradise. To see that beauty, and to see it contrasted with the lead pollution caused by tin mining was dramatic and severe. It’s depressing; there’s no way around it. I would ask Nuha, “Why do you believe you can turn it around?” She would say, “Because we have to.” Her sense of optimism is inspiring. We were often shocked to see the environmental devastation, but our spirits were buoyed by the fact that the kids were undeterred. They haven’t learned cynicism yet, and that sense of hopefulness is something we can all learn from.
When I talked to Jared Goodwin on the phone from Hilo, Hawaii, I was struck by his deep love of nature, and how much that motivated him to do the work that he was doing. A lot of the kids we met lived in urban areas and didn’t have a deep relationship to the natural world. Jared does. He takes pictures of birds and lava and volcanoes, and this inspires him to look more closely at what’s happening where he lives. He had heard for many years about arsenic contamination in a pond next to the house where he grew up. Because he’s curious and smart, he wanted to understand more about it. When you go to the pond, it’s beautiful, with ducks and fishing and kids. Then, you find out that a company was freely dumping arsenic into the pond for thirty years, using it as a receptacle for waste. This left a permanent mark on that area, especially because tsunamis regularly hit Hilo and spread the pond water into the surrounding neighborhoods. Jared was sampling and tracking the path of contamination, and I was impressed by his ability to understand why this was important. Humans have been creating toxicity for decades and we need to know where it all ends up. This is a complicated issue for anyone to wrap his or her head around; but especially a 16-year-old. I was also struck by his deep personal connection to the area, because his grandmother took him to that pond as a kid, and his family had survived generations of tsunamis.
Monterrey, Mexico is a big city with millions of people – and one of the most polluted cities in Latin America. It was quite surprising to me that its industrialized areas are right next to residential neighborhoods. The boys we met in Mexico are basically living under a cloud of smog. They decided they wanted to address it because they were at a bus stop near their school every day, sitting in these clouds of diesel exhaust and looking at the sky, not being able to see the mountains—and realizing there’s something they could do about it. They said they were motivated by their own sense of personal responsibility.
We do have options for how we as a culture can address these issues. But what really struck me about the kids was that they weren’t saying, “We need to stop this industry.” They were saying, “Industry is what gives people jobs where we live, so we need to engage in industrial remediation. There’s a way we could support our economy that doesn’t have to be so damaging.” It was interesting to me that all of the kids were invested in working within the systems that were already there. They wanted to come up with common-sense ways of making things better.
The film emphasizes the need for ingenuity and originality. After making it, how do you feel about the potential for ingenuity and originality to save humanity from itself?
I think each of our young scientists shows us a potential path forward, and it’s really up to us to decide to empower those young people. I’m hopeful that the film will show the absolute value of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education in our culture. The key to creating innovative solutions for the future is access to high-quality STEM education.
In the United States, we are not competitive with the rest of the world in that regard, and there are states where STEM education is coming under political fire. This stands in direct opposition to empowering the next generation to confront the future. We are not blocked by a lack of technological solutions; we’re blocked by political obstacles. Another thing that struck me about the kids was that they didn’t approach their work from a political standpoint at all. I find that hopeful, because they don’t see why politics should be an issue in addressing the environment. And they’re right; it’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.
Were you a science geek yourself as a kid?
I don’t have a STEM background. I was a band geek in high school, in college I studied history, and in graduate school I studied visual arts. But I think that was helpful, because I could serve as a proxy for the audience. The students’ projects needed to make sense to me, so I could make sense of them for an audience.
One of my goals for the film is to lower the intimidation level around science. I think that many people, including myself, often have an attitude like, “That’s something only scientists can understand.” I’m hoping that these high school kids can help people realize that science is something that anyone can engage in.
I think one of the greatest values of competing in a science fair is that you learn how to communicate your project to the general public. The kids must defend their scientific research to a judge, and although the judge is an expert, the student must be able to talk about their project simply and clearly. In fact, explaining the project clearly makes up the biggest part of a student’s score.
There’s also a great part of the science fair called Public Day, when middle school students are bussed in and the participants must explain their projects to them. This was truly one of the most beautiful and hopeful things that I filmed; watching the older students speaking with younger ones and seeing the light bulbs go off in in their heads.
I also think the value of the fair is in creating a community of like-minded people. I wasn’t interested in making another film that shows kids competing with each other; I was more moved by the community that I saw being formed. That seemed to be what the kids took from it, and that was more important to me than one of my characters winning a prize.
Another value of the science fair is that kids from different backgrounds and different parts of the world are physically brought together in one place. We live in a world where we communicate online, but it’s so valuable to be in the same room with like-minded souls. The fact that these kids are doing intense scientific research means that sometimes they can be isolated at home, so it was enjoyable to see them meet other kids who were like them.
What was the visual approach you took to telling your story and why?
In collaboration with my director of photography, Martina Radwan, we decided to shoot the film from a first-person perspective, in order to tell an immersive story, favoring an intimate verité shooting style. We wanted to give the audience a sense of what it’s like to grow up right now, facing these environmental issues. There’s something about the way we look at things when we’re young that’s really special, and quite unique. I think it’s because we haven’t learned cynicism yet. So we wanted the audience to feel close to the kids.
To achieve this immersive feel, we mostly avoided using privileged points of view, including a conscious decision to not use any drone shots, even though it would’ve been a great way to shoot some of the scenes. We contrasted the more intimate shooting with wides of the landscapes where they lived, looking at photographers like Sebastião Salgado. The wides were necessary in order to tell the environmental story, and we wanted audiences to have a truly cinematic experience.
We shot the film on the Arri Amira because we wanted detail, depth, and lush imagery to tell this story. Even though it was difficult to lug the camera and lens package onto pirate ships in the South China Sea and through garbage dumps in India, it was important to me that the film was visually powerful and engaging.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in the edit room to tell your story and how did you address it?
One of the challenges was to make science and environmental issues emotional – two topics that are not often thought of as being steeped in feeling. It was also really important to my editor Helen Kearns and I that we find the unique emotional arc for each kid. In the edit room, this meant finding the right balance of the kids’ personal stories, the environmental issues they were facing, and how they were addressing them with their science projects. The audience needs context and information so it all makes sense, but the challenge was keeping the information to a minimum, so we could stay engaged with our characters.
What other formal approaches did you incorporate and how did they impact the final film?
From very early on, I knew that I wanted a score that did not try to evoke the various places and locales where we filmed. I wanted the score to be universal and timeless. I also wanted it to contain themes and variations that would develop over time and be applicable to any character anywhere in the film, whether they were working in the lab or experiencing how small they were in relation to these overwhelming issues. I worked with Laura Karpman, a classical composer, to create a score as powerful as the ideas the students are grappling with. We were able to record it with a full orchestra and a youth chorus, which was came from John Burroughs High School in Los Angeles, where the television show Glee was based. These young vocal performers were just astonishing, and we feel really lucky to have worked with them.
Any other hopes for the film once it’s released?
As a storyteller, when you’re trying to engage audiences regarding environmental issues, you need to use everything in the toolkit. Films that lay out the facts are important, but it’s also vital to show stories of change. I really hope our film makes people believe there is a path forward. And I hope that the kids will inspire audiences as much as they inspired me.