'Science Fair' Doc Makers on How the Film (Unintentionally) Reflects the Tumultuous Political Climate

Fusion
The National Geographic doc, which won audience awards at Sundance and SXSW, centers on a competition that draws 1,700 students from 78 countries.

Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster's documentary feature follows high school students from all backgrounds as they prepare to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster began making Science Fair, which follows nine high school students from around the world as they prepare to compete at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, before Donald Trump was elected — and before the current flare of controversy over immigrants in the U.S. The filmmakers spoke to THR about the film’s newfound timeliness, the unifying nature of science and what they learned from their young subjects.

Why tell this story now?

CRISTINA COSTANTINI The event has been very important to me, personally. I competed at Science Fair for two years when I was in high school. And we set out to make the movie a long time ago, before the nation changed. So during the process of making this movie, we had all these kids — we had Muslims, women and immigrants — and we realized as we were making this and as the country changed that all these things took on a much different meaning and were more important than ever to be talking about: the value of science, the value of women, the value of immigrants.

What is so unifying about science?

DARREN FOSTER We're all subject to the laws of science despite what some people might think, and we ignore science at our own peril. And I think for Cristina and me, making this film, I think it was really an opportunity for us to reflect on how science has sort of fallen as a priority in this country.

Do you feel that you approached the project differently given the current political climate?

COSTANTINI Our movie is a happy, fun movie that celebrates kids and science, and so politics isn't really at the forefront, but I think for anyone who watches the film now, in 2018, you can't help but think about what's going on in these kids' lives as they're going through this. And I think it makes their messages and their stories resonate much more. I don't think we really changed the movie substantially based on the times, I think the times changed as we were making the movie. And I think that these kids really represent the best of us and serve as a model of how the adult world should be acting when so many of our adults are acting like children.

What was the most surprising thing about working with kids?

FOSTER I think the really great thing about working with kids is that they're really open and honest and they also have their whole lives ahead of them. They really are idealistic in the best sense of the word.

COSTANTINI This generation gets a pretty bad rap as the people who watch YouTube all day and follow influencers on Instagram. And I guess what I was most surprised by was the other side of that: how technology has changed what learning can look like.

What did you learn from this experience?

FOSTER I think the biggest lesson we learned, especially working with kids, is to trust the kids to be who they are and let them be who they are on camera, and not try to put them into the stereotype of what a science fair kid is.

COSTANTINI It reaffirmed my belief in small, dedicated teams. We had a very small team and none of us had made a feature documentary before, and I think we were all dedicated to this one goal. And I think the joy of the team shows up in the joy of the kids and [ultimately] in the movie.

A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.