After making documentaries about the opioid crisis (“The Naked Truth: Death by Fentanyl”) and migrant detention centers (“Why Did the U.S. Lock Up These Women with Men?”), Darren Foster and Cristina Costantini were ready for something a little more uplifting. “It was a natural progression,” Foster joked during the IDA Screening Series’ presentation of “Science Fair,” the co-directors’ crowd-pleasing documentary that first premiered at Sundance earlier this year.
“We started talking about my science-fair experience, as I participated for two years, as I mentioned, and Darren immediately was like, ‘We gotta do that documentary,'” Costantini added. From there, things began to fall into place — albeit gradually.
“We’ve never done anything happy, we’ve never done anything fun, and so we got very, very lucky,” she said, explaining how Univision agreed to fund the project in full. Following a cross-section of hundreds of kids who hope to be named Best in Fair at the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair, the film took home audience awards from both Sundance and SXSW. Part of that comes from the students (and one teacher) Foster and Costantini followed, not that finding them was easy: They scouted ISEF 2016 before finding their full cast, and production lasted nearly a year.
Joining the filmmakers onstage were four of their subjects, one of whom has particularly captivated viewers with his intelligence and attitude. “It feels like a responsibility,” Robbie Barrat responded when asked how it feels to make audiences hopeful for the future. “Like a burden,” he added through uncomfortable laughter. Gabriel de Moura Martins, who hails from Brazil and was accompanied at the screening by an interpreter, said, “I have no words. “I never thought I would be here, but I’m very happy for this recognition.”
Mylenna Braz de Silva, also from Brazil, takes her newfound responsibility seriously. “I know from now on I’m a model, especially in my city. It’s a must for me to incentivize other youngsters in terms of science and to show them that, no matter where they come from, what reality they have, they can achieve things they couldn’t possibly imagine,” she said.
“I do it because of girls like her,” Dr. Serena McCalla said of her motivations to continue bringing students to ISEF year after year. “She’s priceless, right? I can’t imagine being her age and being that, you know, conscious of who I am and what my responsibilities are in the world…I think that I see students that are similar to her every day, and they have such promise, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that they achieve their goals because they are the future and they will change all of the mistakes that we’ve made as adults and they’ll make this a better place.”
“Science Fair” ends up being about more than just a science fair. “When we set out to make this, all the themes that came out in this — about immigration, about Muslims, about women in science — these are just organic to the story we were telling,” Foster said. “I mean, we weren’t making any special efforts here. This is the world of science fair, and I think, if you feel something special about these kids and this film, it’s because these kids represent the best of us.”
Times are difficult, but Foster said hope springs eternal. “At a time when adults are acting like children in the face of global challenges, you have these kids who are — in the words of an anonymous op-ed — lodestars for the rest of us.”
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.