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Documentary Follows Students From Around the Globe to Science Fair

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I had some trepidation when I sat down for the documentary "Inventing Tomorrow" at the AFI DOCS film festival in Washington, knowing little more than that it was about students at an international science fair.

My anxiety grew when the film by director Laura Nix opened by showing its six young scientists working on their very advanced experiments in various waterways and landscapes around the world. Science has never been my strong suit.

But the film turned out to be one of the most engaging and entertaining education documentaries I have seen in a while. The featured teams (made up of one to three students) come from Bangka, Indonesia; Bangalore, India; Monterrey, Mexico; and Hilo, Hawaii.

Their research subjects (very much boiled down) involve studying byproducts of tin ore processing, crowd-source monitoring of bodies of water for contamination, investigating ground soil for arsenic contamination from tsunamis, and an idea for photocatalytic ceramic paint to purify air.

Those are some ambitious projects. But the film also has fun as we observe the teams preparing for their trips to Los Angeles for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

At the fair, the subject students visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame, trade pins with fellow participants from around the world, and tackle some barely appetizing convention center cuisine. The very likable male members of the Monterrey team—Fernando, Jesús, and Jose—don't hesitate to practice their English and take selfies with female participants. 

Sahithi, from India, isn't quite sure how to attack a bean-filled soft taco. Nuha, from Indonesia, has to carry on by herself after her teammate is not permitted to travel by her parents because the science fair conflicts with national exams. And Jared, from Hilo, movingly explains to his grandmother how she is part of his team since his project is based on her recollections of years-ago tsunamis.

But mostly the students fret over every last detail of their presentations, especially in a giant convention hall full of impressive entries from all over the world.

Director Nix explained after the screening that she had to negotiate to be able to film science fair judges as they engaged the film's subjects and evaluated their projects. "Inventing Tomorrow" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, one of two documentaries based on the Intel ISEF. (The other was "Science Fair," which was not shown at AFI DOCS. I would think that showing up as a director at Sundance to learn that another film covers the exact same subject would be like arriving at the science fair and finding out that another team did the exact same project and had the very same display.)

Nix stressed that "Inventing Tomorrow" was not primarily meant to be about whether the featured teams won or lost in the slick, massive competition. 

It was more about the journey, and Nix takes viewers, including those who are still afraid of the science, along for an emotional ride.

Other education-related films at AFI DOCS

Yesterday in this space I wrote about "Personal Statement," a film about college access. And I still plan a separate post about "America to Me," the first episode of a forthcoming documentary TV series about a big suburban U.S. high school.

Here are two more films I saw at AFI DOCS that weren't all about education per se, but are worth a few words.

"Alone in the Game"

This documentary from David McFarland examines gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender athletes, including transgender high school student Trevor Betts, who was born female and became a popular member of his school wrestling and football teams. Betts' story is the only high school profile in a film that features out LGBT athletes such as retired MLS soccer player Robbie Rogers, soccer Olympian Megan Rapinoe, retired NBA center Jason Collins, and Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy.

The personable Betts, who has to go to court against his father to win the right to change his name, practically steals the movie (although he's not in the trailer below). "Alone in the Game" will appear on AT&T's Audience Network on June 28.

"">Minding the Gap"

This film by first-time director Bing Liu, who was a crew member on the "America to Me" high school documentary series at the same time he was working on this film, is about three recent high school students (not necessarily graduates, as we see two of them pursue their GEDs) who like to skateboard, drink, and slack their way through their young adulthood in rundown Rockford, Ill.

The engaging film is not about schooling, obviously, but about those treacherous years just after high school for those not on the college and career track. 

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