I can still remember competing at the local science fair in high school. It was exciting, inspiring — and ridiculously nerve-wracking to be in the same room with so many super-smart kids. But that's nothing compared to the intensity of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), where more than 1,800 high-schoolers from 78 countries compete for prizes that may literally change the course of their lives.
In a time when many feel a desperate need to encourage science learning, it’s no wonder ISEF was the inspiration for not just one but two films chosen for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. One of those films, a documentary called "Science Fair," was the winner of the festival’s first Festival Favorite Award, chosen as the fan-favorite among the 123 films shown. (The other film is "Inventing Tomorrow," directed by Laura Nix.)
Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, "Science Fair" follows nine high-schoolers from around the world as they compete at the highest level against thousands of other students. How did the choose the nine students they would follow for the film? The directors set their sights on "kids who made us laugh and kids who made us cry," Costantini told the Los Angeles Times. (Watch a trailer for the movie in the clip above.)
It also helped that the two directors of "Science Fair" had been competitors at ISEF as high schoolers, with Costantini taking fourth place in the behavioral sciences category.
"'Science Fair' is the documentary I've wanted to make my whole life,” said Costantini.
The stories within "Science Fair" are built on a backdrop of academics, but at their heart, they are stories of hope and inspiration. Such is the case with the story of Kashfia, one of the only Muslim girls at a large sports-focused high school in South Dakota, whose project sponsor is her school’s head football coach.
"Science Fair" also share the stories of Myllena and Gabriel, poor teens from an impoverished town in a Brazil who see winning the science fair as their ticket to a better life — for them and their families.
"Audiences responded to the hope in this film, and how it thoughtfully depicted a rising generation of innovators," Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper said in a statement. "The film was so engaging and inspiring that we felt it would delight audiences and be a strong contender for this award."