TCFF 2018 Documentary Spotlight: INVENTING TOMORROW & interview w/ filmmaker Laura Nix

Every year TCFF has put together an amazing lineup of documentaries and Inventing Tomorrow that tick all the boxes of what makes an inspiring, fascinating AND entertaining film.

Considered the Olympics of high school science fairs, ISEF is the largest gathering of high school scientists in the world, attracting approximately 1,800 finalists from over 75 countries, regions and territories. Spanning the globe to film students from four different countries as they embark on a whirlwind of social activities and field trips, forming life-changing bonds. The filmmakers didn’t stop there, when the fair ends, Laura Nix and her team follow our characters home to witness how they process their experiences at ISEF. It’s absolutely inspiring, especially given today’s geopolitical climate, to see young people who believe in a shared vision of environmental stewardship and collective action.

INVENTING TOMORROW follows six young scientists from Indonesia, Hawaii, India and Mexico as they tackle some of the most complex environmental issues facing humanity today – right in their own backyards. Each student is preparing original scientific research that he or she will defend at ISEF, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Framed against the backdrop of the severe environmental threats we now face, we immerse the audience in a global view of the planetary crisis, through the eyes of the generation that will be affected by it most.

Q&A with filmmaker Laura Nix

Q1. How did this project come about to you? Are you (or someone you know) involved in ISEF Science Fair prior to making this?

Like a lot of the general public, I had never heard about the fair beforehand. Which I hope changes after this film because it’s extraordinary, and everyone should be familiar with it in the same way we know the World Series or the Olympics. I was approached in 2015 by my producers Diane Becker and Melanie Miller to see if I was interested to make a doc about ISEF, so I attended the fair in Phoenix in 2016 to both film and scout, and I immediately realized there was a great story to tell there. First off it’s huge – almost 1800 kids attend, and 1000 volunteer judges show up to evaluate their projects. The sense of hopefulness and optimism there was infectious. But I was struck by the students I met who were doing projects with environmental impact, especially when they were addressing issues they were confronting at home – whether it was lack of clean drinking water, or air pollution, or some other type of environmental challenge. They weren’t doing research because it would be cool on their college application, but because they were deeply and personally motivated to save their home and the people they love who live there. Those were the kids who made me want to make the film.

Sahithi at ISEF Opening Ceremony

Q2. How did you select the students to feature in Inventing Tomorrow?

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 the intention of environmental impact. We worked with local field producers in some countries, and sent out our own field producer to certain places. In the end, we probably interviewed over a hundred kids from all over the world and the US. We were looking for kids who were doing science with a sense of purpose; who were addressing an environmental issue that was local and personal. I was specifically looking for issues that were visual, and for students who could clearly describe their project to an audience. We also were looking for a range of environmental issues that dealt with air, water, and earth.

Most people might think that a documentary about science and the environment is boring, so it was really important to me to create an emotional and character-based film. 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, culture, and gender parity. I traveled all over the world to meet the kids we eventually decided to film, and I followed them without having any idea of whether they would win something once they arrived at the fair. I spent time with all of them because I believed in them as people, and because I was fascinated by their ability to pay attention and ask the right questions about the world around them.

Jose in his home in Mexico

Q3. You’ve done over two dozen docs and doc shorts, how do you choose your subject/topic for your next film or do they come to you?

Many of the topics have been introduced to me, sometimes I find the topic on my own. When I look back on my work, I think the greatest similarity is my interest in people who want to make a difference – that seems to keep coming up. These films are really hard to make, and they take a long time as well, so you need to have a deep passion for the topic or you can’t make it through the whole process.

Jared birding with his father

Q4. For Inventing Tomorrow, you had to travel to various countries to film. What has been some of the challenges as well as unexpected delights you & your crew encounter?

When we’re traveling internationally as a film crew, one of the greatest challenges is the language difference. It’s so important to know what is actually happening when I’m directing a scene, so we used interpreters while filming. This is necessary to speak to the film’s subjects, families, sometimes the film crew. The sound person sets up a system where the interpreter stands off set with a remote microphone and interprets live what everyone is saying, and that translation is fed through the sound mixer back to the me and the camera woman as it happens. That way we can make better creative choices about what to shoot and how we shoot it. While we still encounter moments that are lost in translation, the interpreter is essential to the process. My favorite part of filming internationally is getting to meet people and go to places I would never ever have the opportunity to visit as a tourist. For example, getting to visit the armada of pirate tin mining dredges is not on anyone’s tourist itinerary, but that’s one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been.

Nuha taking a selfie with her friends

Q5. As I was born and raised in Indonesia, can you tell me just one anecdote about filming in Bangka for Nuha’s story?

People have asked at screenings how did we get access to the pirate dredges, who gave us permission? And because it’s the type of environment that doesn’t have an organized “pirate tin miners association,” we really had to wing it. Our local field producer reached out in advance to some people in the area who had contacts on the dredges, but they all were a no show on the day of the shoot. We had already driven 3 hours before dawn to get to where the ships were, so we just headed out to sea with great hope. And the moment where they gave us permission to film is actually on camera. Nuha, who is this incredible combination of being brave, and also clear about her intention, just asked “Hey can we come aboard your ship?” and they said yes, and so we went. Who could tell her no?

Nuha speaking with pirates in Bangka, Indonesia

Q5. What’s your goal as a storyteller with the release of this film?

We are working hard to have the film reach as many young people as possible, so people their age with courage, clarity of vision, and belief in their ability to save this planet can inspire them. We are using the film to promote equal access to high quality STEM education as well as youth environmental stewardship, so the next generation is empowered with the tools they need to ensure their own survival on this planet. I also want adults to see the vision of these young people and be galvanized to amplify their voices, their approach and their overall message. It’s clear we left a mess behind us, and we need the next generation to lead so we can follow.


Follow INVENTING TOMORROW on social media:

Official Site

Laura Nix on Twitter | Instagram


TCFF screening sponsored by


Check out the trailer below:


Thanks so much Laura Nix for chatting with FlixChatter!

Twin Cities Film Fest’s 2018 OPENING NIGHT: Time For Ilhan Documentary & Green Book Reviews

What a day! What a night! It’s the ninth year I’m covering TCFF (yep that’s right, I’ve been with this amazing film fest since its inception) and they’ve done it again. They had not one but TWO opening night film and they’re both amazing! (scroll down to view my brief write-up of Time For Ilhan and Green Book below).

I had an early start this morning and was greeted by a beautiful blue sky in a crisp Autumn day (welcome back sunshine, we’ve missed you!!) I had a chance to hang out with Michael Driscoll, the filmmaker of the gorgeous b&w noir short film Two Black Coffees (which you can read all about it here). He’ll be here for the duration of the fest on his first visit to Minnesota! If you want to see his film, along w/ many other great shorts, be sure to get your tickets to the Thrilling, Tingling Tales on Thursday, 10/25 at 9:15pm.

Wish I still had enough energy to attend the Opening Night party… but it’s already almost 11pm by the time the Green Book screening + Q&A and I still have to do my blogging duties. Well, there’s still 10 more days left at TCFF, it certainly was off to a smashing start!!


TIME FOR ILHAN

“Time For Ilhan” is an eye-opening documentary that follows the 2016 Minnesota House of Representatives campaign of Ilhan Omar, a Somalian immigrant who sets out to unseat a 43-year incumbent and other challengers.

I love when a film title captures the essence of the film so perfectly, and Time For Ilhan is one of those films. Many of you know Ilhan Omar as the first Somali-American legislator elected to office in the United States and there are certainly many ‘firsts’ in regards to her life and career, and what she represents. In fact, one audience member asked her how it feels like to represent not just her Democratic party, but SO much larger than that… that is her Somali-American community, the Immigrant community, her race, Muslim women, and women in politics in a very much white-male-dominated world.

Interestingly though, at the time she was running in the DFL primary for the Minnesota House of Representative, she was running against a 43-year incumbent (Phyllis Kahn, who happens to be a Jewish-American) and a fellow Somali-American Mohamud Noor. Though we know the outcome already (she is now the DFL nominee for U. S. Representative), the film was still quite suspenseful as well as heart-wrenching in the way they depict a political race, especially involving the underdogs.

I appreciate and admire filmmaker Norah Shapiro‘s astute directorial sensibility in making an important film that’s also entertaining to watch. I love that aside from the political campaign, she took the time to show Ilhan’s family life… her playing with her three kids, having dinner with her family and interacting with her supportive Somali-American husband, Ahmed Hirsi. There’s more than just Ilhan the politician, but we see her as a well-rounded, complex, layered individual who has the courage and drive to fight for what she believes in. Additionally, the film also gives insights, especially for people like me who aren’t much into politics, just what goes into campaigning and how intricate that process is.

Naturally, given the nature of Ilhan Omar’s ethnic background and who she represents, this is quite an unprecedented political race that makes for a fascinating documentary. I have to give a shout out to DP Chris Newberry (who’s also the film’s producer) for the wonderful visuals showcasing the beautiful state of Minnesota.

What a treat it was for those attending the TCFF screening to see Ilhan Omar herself up on stage with director Norah Shapiro. She was as cordial and well-spoken as you see her on the media. As a woman of color and US immigrant myself, she certainly inspires me to be courageous and pursue my dream, no matter how seemingly-impossible that is.

Ilhan Omar & Norah Shapiro at TCFF Q&A after the screening

Check out the TCFF red carpet interview with Ilhan Omar:


GREEN BOOK

A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.

I have to say that this film had me hooked right from the poster and the trailer. But when I first saw that the director is Peter Farrelly, I had to do a double take. I mean he’s known for his comedies like Dumb & Dumber, Something About Mary, etc. and I expected this to be a drama. Well, this is one of those films that play with your expectations… and Farrelly certainly succeeds in finding the perfect balance of comedy and drama in capturing a poignant and heart-warming true story.

The film is based on a screenplay written by Nick Vallelonga, who happens to be the son of Tony Lip, one of the two protagonists of the film. It’s a tale of unlikely friendship as they embark on a journey that changes their lives forever. I knew that they had a winner when they cast Viggo Mortensen (a Danish thespian who’s completely believable as an Italian) and the oh-so-regal Mahershala Ali as a Jamaican-American classical pianist Don Shirley, a musical genius. The title refers to an actual book, a road-trip guide to services and places that’s open to Blacks during a time of pervasive racial discrimination. Without giving too much away, the film touches on the reason Shirley chose to do the tours in the Deep South in the 60s, when he could’ve easily chosen to stay relatively safe in the North. I’m not going to write the line here as it’s better for you to discover it for yourself when you watched it. It’s one of the moments I teared up in this film.

The racial injustices Shirley face is a deeply serious subject that’s maddening and heartbreaking, and the film doesn’t shy away from that. Yet there’s a lightness to the film that comes from the script AND the performances of the two actors. Some scenes, like the KFC scene in the car, is a riot. Yet the hilarity doesn’t undermine the gravity of the subject matter. There are many memorable moments where these two extremely-different people clash day in and day out. But much to their surprise, each of those moment actually brought them closer to each other. Each of them is a changed-man after the trip, and that transformation feels real and believable, not at all tacked-on.

It’s the kind of film that sparks conversations about race and economic disparity, even ‘class’ system if you will, without being too heavy-handed. One thing that touches me deeply is how the film depicts loneliness. As they say, it’s ‘lonely at the top’ but it’s even more lonely for those who don’t feel like they belong anywhere. Despite his amazing talents and accomplishments, and also because of it, Don Shirley never felt like he can fit in any racial group, and that’s harrowing to watch. It’s one thing to depict racial inequality by presenting facts, which is all fine and good, but it’s truly a moving experience when it’s told in such a personal level and see how hearts are being transformed by personal relationships.

Producer Jim Burke spoke at the Q&A afterwards and shed a light about some details about the film. One thing that caught my eye in the credits is that Octavia Spencer is listed as Executive Producer. Well, Burke said that she was asked to collaborate given that she grew up in the South during that era, in order to give an authentic depiction of the story. Burke also mentioned that Mahershala Ali gave a lot of input about the ending, which is definitely a memorable one.

Go see this movie when it comes out near you. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, sometimes both at the same time… but one thing for sure, you’ll come away feeling grateful you get to know a little bit about Don Shirley and Tony Lip, and their incredible journey together.


Check out the TCFF red carpet interview with producer Jim Burke:


Any thoughts about the two films I mentioned above? Let’s hear it!