It was only natural that when Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster began to think about making their first feature together about the International Science and Engineering Fair, they would approach it as a bit of an experiment.
“It was a total turn from what Darren and I were doing,” says Costantini, who first met Foster working on the painkiller exposé “Death by Fentanyl” with his wife Mariana van Zeller. “We are investigative journalists, so it’s totally different skills, but we both loved this world and decided that we should try something new.”
While professionally, “Science Fair” offered the pair a chance to shake things up, the film had been close to Costantini’s heart for some time. A self-described “science fair nerd back in the day” who found her tribe amidst the kids whose ideas of fun might involve coding or tinkering with bacteria samples, she wondered why no one had ever taken their camera into ISEF where 1700 budding scientists from around the world compete in a variety of categories with projects that may be the work of high schoolers but genuinely have a chance at scientific innovation.
As it turns out, Costantini wasn’t alone in this line of thought since “Science Fair” is one of two films at Sundance this year about the competition (the other being Laura Nix’s “Inventing Tomorrow”), but that actually speaks to just how timely the story has become as the celebration of cultural diversity and scientific study arrives as it appears that both need to be fought for now harder than ever before. “Science Fair” starkly depicts how real that battle actually is, finding such students as Kashfia, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants who struggles to find sponsors for her science fair project at her school in South Dakota despite placing third internationally the year before; Myllena and Gabriel, a pair of students from the 14,000-person town of Iracema, Brazil who require the support of the entire community to continue their work helping to develop new medication that neutralizes the trigger for the Zika virus; and Robbie, a young man in West Virginia who has trouble getting passing grades in school yet can program calculators to spit out Shakespearean verse.
However, their passion and creativity is infectious, becoming ingrained into the DNA of “Science Fair.” Costantini and Foster show the same ingenuity in capturing the joy of discovery, both in the students’ growing confidence in following their curiosity wherever it might lead and the results of their actual experimentation. It’s fair to say that the filmmakers’ own experiment is a grand success and shortly before the pair unveil the film at Sundance, they spoke about how they covered such a vast amount of territory, both geographically and narratively, making a competition film in which students are often challenging themselves the most, and telling this story at this particular time.
Darren Foster: Definitely the biggest challenge was trying to select the kids that we were going to follow, and [now] we think one of the biggest successes of the film is that we just found these incredible kids. There are seven million kids around the world that participate in science fairs and 1700 of them make it to ISEF, so to whittle that down to just a few kids to follow was a big task and we actually followed more kids than wound up being in the film. But thankfully, we had some insider knowledge, thanks to Cristina’s experience on where some of the powerhouse schools were and basically we were looking for a pretty good cross-section — kids from schools that really support science to kids that have no support and kids that are from poor towns in Brazil to Germany, so we cast a pretty wide net. At the end of the day, we really lucked out.
It’s an interesting film in that it celebrates learning, but also shows the inconsistency of education throughout America and abroad since you see what a difference Dr. Serena McCalla has on the lives of her students in Long Island, but in Brookings, South Dakota, you see Kashfia, a student who’s placed highly at ISEF before have trouble finding any teachers at her school willing to sponsor her. Was that challenging to depict in a fair way?
Cristina Costantini: Yeah, we wanted to show kind of the diversity of the level of education different kids are getting in this country. Dr. McCalla’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever met and all of her kids say she is life-changing for them. But we wanted to show that there are kids going to schools that are not like that and that they have to work 10 times as hard to make it to a place like ISEF. Robbie is another example. He was at a huge West Virginia public high school where nobody really encouraged his interests or curiosity in number theory, so we wanted to show there’s a large range of kinds of schools that kids go to, and ones who have McCallas definitely have a leg up.
Darren Foster: And there’s some irony in that [example of Kashfia]. Dr. McCalla runs her program like some schools here run their football teams. She’s very much the coach and they dedicate a lot of time and effort after and during school to performing well as a team and then you go somewhere like Brookings, South Dakota where no one’s going to help Kashfia with her Science Fair project and [it ends up being] this very woke football coach who decides to lend a hand. Kashfia is one of the very first people that we met when we were scouting for this and the coach has that line [in the film] about Kashfia having the heart of a lion. She’s very soft-spoken. She’s very quiet. But we recognized back in 2016 when we scouted that there was something very special in her and once we found out her football coach was her mentor, we were like, ”We’re following this girl.” [laughs]
Darren Foster: The process to get to ISEF is that you have to qualify at your local or regional fair, so there’s a couple of schools like duPont Manual in Louisville, Kentucky, which is a powerhouse school [that] has their own science fair [because] they’re so successful in Science Fair, the state was like, “You need to have your own.” They were winning everything in the regional science fairs when they were competing against other schools. So they had their own science fair and we went to that fair and did our due diligence ahead of time about who we should be following, who had the strongest projects and we spoke with some of the alumni and some of the teachers. We identified the three boys that are in the film [from duPont] – Ryan, Harsha and Abraham, so we were there from the beginning from when they qualified to throughout the rest of the journey. Likewise, a couple other characters we identified early on – Kashfia, we were at her identifying fair — and then we knew we couldn’t get them all, but it would be great if we could, so [in] Brazil, we managed to get the footage of Myllena and Gabriel winning, but as soon as we identified who these characters were and that they had a strong chance, we were with them early and often. We’d go back and make multiple visits, and find out a little bit about their family lives and we’d meet their parents. The kids that we really liked, we were all in on and spent a lot of time with.
Cristina, from your experience, has the Science Fair changed all that much or did you have an idea of how to make this based on your experience?
Cristina Costantini: It was shocking [because] I hadn’t been back in about a decade and really so little has changed – everything from the announcer, who reads the names of the kids who are winning, to the setting to the curtains that they use every year – everything looked almost identical. So it was a little bit eerie being back in this world that I was so familiar with in my teenage memories and seeing it again in a totally different context. I have a lot of nostalgia and it was great to be back in that world.
There’s usually a certain framework to films about competition, but given the nature of the competition where people aren’t necessarily competing with each other or even thinking competitively, does that change how you approach things?
Darren Foster: The story obviously has a pretty natural arc of a competition film, but one of the challenges that we had was that we weren’t actually there for the most critical moment that these kids face, which is the judging [since] it’s basically just the kids and the judges who are allowed behind these closed doors. Mentors, teachers, families are kept on the outside and we were kept on the outside too, so one of the challenges we had was how do you make this moment work in a competition film? What we decided is let’s take this moment to reflect a little bit on what this moment is like for people who have been through it or from the perspective of parents who are very invested in what their kids have been doing. Surprisingly, that became one of the sequences that we really love in the film. Likewise, the awards ceremony is also very complicated. There are 22 categories. People place from fourth to first and to render that in a documentary was really challenging, so we basically used that moment to reflect on the significance of science fairs and science in everyone’s lives, but particularly in these kids’ lives as well.
What was it like shooting at the Fair itself?
Darren Foster: It was bonkers. We only had five press passes for the whole event and at that point, we were probably following 12 teenagers in downtown Los Angeles. It was no easy task, but thankfully we had enough crew. We had three cameras and it was like we weren’t doing man-to-man – we were playing a zone defense, keeping track of all these kids, so we just tried to be everywhere at once and it was definitely a challenge.
Cristina Costantini: We were following way more kids than ended up in the movie, so it was exhausting. At one point, I fainted, just so exhausted like Kashfia says. It was very difficult, but we all had a ton of fun. We knew we were comically staffed. We knew it was a crazy situation, but everybody on the team had an amazing spirit.
Cristina Costantini: Yeah, the [presidential] election definitely changed how we looked at the movie we were making. [This film] started for Darren and I as a break from investigative reporting and serious topics and everyone thought Hillary was going to win and that the state of science would be a bit different than it is now. But we realized as we were making it that a lot of the characters we were following found themselves under attack — Muslims, women, immigrants, scientists, in general. So we knew that our audience would have this backdrop while they were watching the film, and the characters took a different turn. We didn’t want the Trump Administration to be a big part of the movie because it is such a hopeful little world, but it is the backdrop to our movie and I think it affected how we chose our characters and what questions we asked during our interviews.
What is it like to get to the finish line and sending this film out into the world?
Cristina Costantini: It’s much different than projects I’ve worked on before. We just finished it and I’ve never watched a movie so many times in my entire life. Right now, we’re at a stage where we’ve watched it dozens of times and are sick of it, but I’m most excited to see it with an audience because I’ve never seen a group of people react to it and you don’t know where people are going to laugh or what they’re going to identify with, so I’m just really excited to share it.
Darren Foster: Cristina and I have done a lot of TV, but this is the first time we’ve made a feature and at the beginning of this, we joked around that we were going to premiere it at Sundance. Literally, it was nothing more than a joke in our minds, but to get into Sundance was unbelievable for the both of us. We’re really grateful that people are responding so well to the film [already] because these kids are just so inspiring. We basically lived with this material for over a year and to see it now have a life outside our edit bay is incredible.
“Science Fair” will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20th at 3 pm in Salt Lake City at the Salt Lake City Library and will screen in Park City on January 21st at 12:30 pm at the Redstone 1, January 23rd at 8:30 am at the Prospector Theatre and January 27th at 12:30 pm at the Redstone 1.