Laura Nix’s uplifting and entertaining INVENTING TOMORROW follows high school students from around the world as they prepare to compete at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
For these students, many of whom hail from dangerously polluted countries, their science projects aren’t just homework assignments, but researched and ingeniously proposed solutions to problems directly affecting their local communities. Despite facing seemingly insurmountable environmental issues — from toxic waste-filled lakes in Bangalore, India, to air pollution in Monterrey, Mexico, and arsenic-poisoned soil in Hilo, Hawaii — this group of inspiring young scientists will leave audiences hopeful for the future.
AFI spoke with Nix about the film, which plays AFI DOCS on Saturday, June 16, and Sunday, June 17. Get tickets here.
AFI: What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?
LN: I am both passionate and curious about humans and what makes us tick, as well as the social structures we live in which inform our behavior and lived experience. This has led me to tell stories which aim to make the world smaller by recognizing our connections, and larger when we’re able to learn from our differences. That foundation is my guide through the filmmaking process.
AFI: What inspired you to tell this story?
LN: My last film, THE YES MEN ARE REVOLTING, addressed activism surrounding environmental issues, and I’ve thought a great deal about how to get audiences to think about the topic in a way that leaves people with a sense of hope. My intention with INVENTING TOMORROW was to create an emotional and character-based story about what we might learn about our world through the eyes of the next generation. The issues that face our planet are severe. But we have options in front of us, and the opportunity to make good choices. I hope the film will motivate audiences to search for those options by witnessing the courage of a 16-year old as he or she tackles the greatest problems humanity has ever faced. Our student scientists are observing the damaged planet they’ve inherited, asking the right questions, and inventing solutions to create a path forward. Their commitment to action and their clarity of purpose offers a model for how we should all proceed.
AFI: How did you find the subjects in your film?
LN: We started by reaching out to science teachers and fair directors all over the world, and asked them to identify students who were working on projects with an environmental impact. We then spent months interviewing hundreds of kids, specifically looking for kids who were doing science with a sense of purpose, and who were addressing an environmental issue that was local and personal.
It was really important to me to create an emotional and character-based film, so I was also looking for kids who had a personal story or an obstacle that was compelling, so I could show how they were working to overcome it. We wanted diversity of region, race and religion, and a balance of girls and boys. I traveled all over the world to follow their stories without having any idea of what would happen once they arrived at the fair. I spent time with all of them not because I thought they would win a prize at the science fair, but because I believed in them as people, and because I was fascinated by their ability to ask the right questions about the world around them and seek a solution.
AFI: What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?
LN: One of the biggest challenges was to make science and environmental issues emotional — two topics that are not often thought of as being steeped in feeling. It was really important to find a unique emotional arc for each student. In the edit room, this meant finding the right balance of the kids’ personal stories, the environmental issues they were facing and how they were addressing them with their science projects. The audience needs context and information so it all makes sense, but the challenge was keeping the information to a minimum, so we could stay emotionally engaged with our characters.
AFI: What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?
LN: As a storyteller, when we’re trying to engage audiences regarding environmental issues, we need to use everything in our toolkit — characters, emotions, sonic and visual beauty. Films that lay out the facts are important, but it’s also vital to show stories of change. I hope our film reminds people that there are many paths to address the environmental issues we face, including the importance of supporting STEM education and youth environmental stewardship. Youth activism is in the zeitgeist right now, we see it with the Parkland students, the Dreamers and the youth environmental movement — this generation has clarity about logical paths forward, and we need to follow their lead.
AFI: Why are documentary films important today?
LN: People often mistake documentary films as information delivery machines — but the best examples from our field are on peer with cinematic works of art. We make real movies with compelling characters and great stories, arresting imagery and utilizing all the tools of the filmmaking craft. We often reveal difficult and complex truths, we tell authentic stories of change, resilience and hope. And we need these stories now more than ever as humanity faces an increasingly unstable, atomized and inequitable world.