At a recent Envelope Live screening of the documentary “Science Fair,” it didn’t take long for the inevitable question to come up: Why document a science fair?
It was something that had been brewing inside co-director Cristina Costantini for quite some time as a former science fair winner herself.
“I fell in love with this world when I was a teenager and like I said, I have always wanted to make something to celebrate these kind of kids. I felt in high school like the football players get celebrated all the time and all the kids who are going to change the world sometimes don’t get quite the same reception,” Costantini said. “We wanted to celebrate them like rock stars like ISEF does. There was a lot of joy and a lot of love for this world that is behind this movie.”
ISEF stands for the International Science and Engineering Fair, held every year in Los Angeles. “Science Fair,” directed by Costantini and Darren Foster. The film follows nine high school students from around the world as they compete against 1,700 students from 78 different countries.
Costantini and Foster were joined at the screening and Q&A, held at the Montalban, by two of the film’s subjects: Dr. Serena McCalla and Robbie Barrat.
Because of the sheer number of students competing, Costantini and Foster did an extensive casting search, including scouting the 2016 fair. “Casting was definitely a challenge,” Costantini said. “We wanted there to be underdogs and misfits, we wanted there to be powerhouse schools and some of the best programs in the world.”
So was there any hesitation on the part of the subjects who were selected to be filmed? “No,” Barrat quickly replied.
Spoken like a true competitor, Barrat believed being in the documentary – and specifically being filmed at the fair – gave him an upper hand at times. “It’s like a really funny way to flex on everyone else at science fair,” he said.
McCalla had a very different motivation. “I thought it was an instructional video,” she said with a laugh. “I thought that they were going to use the video to help other teachers learn why my program is so successful.”
The one thing that didn’t make it into the final product? A deeper dive into the current administration’s complicated relationship with science, particularly because of President Trump’s comments questioning climate change.
“We felt that less was more,” Foster said. “There’s obviously a very serious problem from the national level with the tone that is set about science in this country. We had that opportunity to go there, I think, but at the end of the day when you have amazing people and leaders on the local level like Dr. McCalla, why would you overshadow them?”
Costantini elaborated: “There’s a version of this movie that had Trump in it, it had a little bit of him, of his climate change denying and poo-pooing of science, and it didn’t feel right. It felt like we all know what’s happening but these kids are so inspirational and wonderful,” she said. “We just didn’t want to saddle them with the rest of the adult world that’s messing up. We loved the purity of their energy.”