"Science Fair is a love letter to the subculture that saved me," the documentary's co-director Cristina Costantini explains. "It validated my passion for science, taught me how to dedicate myself to a goal and set my life on a trajectory that would have otherwise been totally impossible. But most importantly, science fair is where I found my tribe.
Co-directed by Darren Foster, National Geographic Documentary Films' Science Fair follows nine high school students from around the globe on their journey to compete at the International Science and Engineering Fair. The film offers a front seat to the victories, defeats and motivations of this group of young men and women who are on a path to change their lives (and the world) through science.
"The idea of doing a documentary about science fair has been an obsession of mine since I first went to the International Science and Engineering Fair as a freshman in high school in 2004," Costantini continues. "When I got to ISEF, I thought, 'someone needs to make a documentary about this crazy little world.' It had everything—an international cast of angsty teenagers and inspiring prodigies, all devoted to one very niche subculture, and all striving to make the world a better place."
"From the beginning, Cristina's own experience with science fair was our north star," Foster says. "She not only had firsthand insight into the scene, but with some distance she could also look back and see how it shaped her life. With that very personal perspective, we set out to make a movie about the science fair journey as she remembered it: one of the most stressful, exhilarating, sublime, terrible experiences a young person could go through.
"We wanted to tell the story of teenage prodigies trying to navigate the sweet, confusing purgatory between childhood and adulthood," Foster continues. "But during the making of what was supposed to be a quirky competition documentary, things changed in our country. We realized that many of the characters at the center of our film—scientists, women, Muslims and immigrants—had suddenly found themselves at the center of very ugly national debates.
"We thought a lot about how to incorporate these themes into our film. Should we remind the audience of the times we live in with bites of Trump talking about cutting science funding while American students are already lagging behind their peers? Should we include interviews with talking heads about how science is under attack?
"As we started to go down this path, we realized we were overshadowing the thing that makes this movie shine and were straying from the very thing that drew us to the science fair in the first place—the stories of amazing nerdy teenagers with a whole lotta heart. Instead, we realized we had to trust the audience knows the backdrop that these stories are playing against and let these issues come through in real moments that were true to our main characters."
"By telling the stories of the incredible kids featured in the film, we want people to fall in love with the world of science fair as much as we have," Foster says. "We also hope the spirit and the commitment of our kids restores some hope at a time when the country seems to have turned its back on science. It would also be nice if people walk away with an appreciation for how science fairs foster the minds of some of our nation's brightest students who may or may not fit into traditional educational systems."
"Fund science fair programs!" Costantini emphasizes. "They need all the support they can get right now. Oklahoma just cut its science fair from the state budget and ISEF just lost its principal funder when Intel announced it is pulling its support after next year. Science fairs may seem like just a nerdy extracurricular program, but for some of us, they made all the difference."