Seeking Solutions: 'Inventing Tomorrow' focuses on young environmental activists

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What’s it like to be fifteen years old and live in a world that’s so environmentally out of whack that it threatens human life? Against the backdrop of the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, director Laura Nix’s Inventing Tomorrow follows six teens from India, Indonesia, Hawaii and Mexico who are finding solutions to environmental problems threatening their generation. Earth on Screen, a blog affiliated with Director Talk, spoke with Nix and Sahithi Pingali, a brilliant young woman from Bangalore, India, who epitomizes the dedicated pragmatism that will be necessary to restoring balance to our Earth.

Earth on Screen: At one time Bangalore was described as the land of ten thousand lakes. Now it’s known as the Silicon Valley of India. What environmental impact did this development have on Bangalore?

Sahithi Pingali: There’s no river near Bangalore, so when the city was founded, they built lakes to provide for people’s water needs. The lakes were connected by channels. When it rained, the uppermost lake would overflow and fill all the others.

Suddenly all these IT companies moved to Bangalore. The city grew really quickly, without accompanying infrastructure, such as sewage-treatment plants. The channels connecting the lakes were filled with debris to make them land again, cutting off the lakes from each other. There were a lot of people generating raw sewage, which went right into the lakes. With no channels to distribute fresh water, the lakes became cesspools.

EOS: Laura, you shot some heartbreaking footage in Bangalore.

Laura Nix:Oftentimes with environmental issues you can’t see the problem, so people have a hard time taking them seriously. Bangalore was the opposite. It was visually extraordinary. Before we went, we looked at stock footage and news reports, but they couldn’t prepare me for what it was like. The thing you don’t get from the footage is the smell. When you get out of the car, you’re confronted with this stench as the sewage blows over the roadway and hits the cars. We got covered in it while we were filming. There’s one shot in particular where you can see the foam hitting the camera. [The foam is created by phosphates in the untreated sewage.]

EOS: The film gave me the impression that kids in developing countries are more connected to environmental issues than kids in the U.S. are.

SP:In India the awareness is high, because when you step out of your house there’s no way to avoid it. Yet some people do manage to avoid it. They drive by the lakes every day with their windows up and AC on. They don’t get the smell, they don’t see the foam. The thing is, I was one of those people for a very long time. I only started asking questions when I was fifteen. It’s one thing to know the problem is there and another to be concerned about it and then quite another to take action on that concern. It’s the difference between avoiding it and approaching it. I think that in developing countries you do get more people who are concerned simply because they’re aware, but I don’t know if the ratio of people who know and the people who act is actually any better.

EOS: Laura, you worked with kids from Hawaii and Mexico and Indonesia. What did you find there?

LN:When we were casting the film, I interviewed over a hundred kids from all over the world. We did a data dive, looking at how many environmental projects were coming from each country. In many places, 50 to 70 percent of the projects had an environmental focus. In the States, it was maybe 10 to 15 percent.

It makes sense to me that students living in the developing world are coming up with solutions to environmental problems, because the problems are right in front of their faces. But in fact there are many communities in the U.S. facing ecological crises, environmental justice issues related to pollution or industrial contamination. Corporations are getting away with polluting these communities because the people who live there are underrepresented politically and financially, but they’re very much aware, and they’re taking action. We can look at front-line communities as a model of how we must respond.

EOS: Sahithi, your science fair project had two aspects. First you collected and tested water samples from the lakes, then you crowd-sourced the data through an app and website. What do you want to achieve with this project?

SP:At school I led a group of students to study the foaming lake right behind our school.  We interviewed the people who live there and found that they grow vegetables with that polluted lake water. Others had to close down their shops, others lost their livelihoods. How could I have been able to drive past this for so long and not see how much was happening?

When we brought the stinking water samples to school to test them in our lab, I started seeing that we were connecting to the lakes. We were seeing the water with our own eyes and handling it ourselves. Now I want this to be part of our school curriculum, where every kid goes out once a week and gets a lake sample. It makes a big difference when you engage and do it yourself.

I started sharing the data through crowdsourcing to get everyone to see what was going on. When you do that, it’s important to make the data very visual so people don’t have to look at numbers. On my website I have color-coded maps saying whether the water is safe enough to drink or take a bath or water your vegetables. Now people can look at color-coded maps all across the world and see how their lakes are changing over time, what local actions people are taking. We’re building a community so that it’s no longer just one person going and getting a water sample.

EOS: Laura, I was under the impression that only judges and competitors are allowed to attend the judging session at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. How did you manage to get in?

LN:We talked to the Society for Science and the Public for about a year to get permission to film the judging. They’d never let cameras in the judging process before, and it took a very long time to convince them of the value of that. I felt it was really important to show, because that’s when you see the students communicating their science projects in a very quick way to someone who knows about it. I think that’s the greatest value in participating in the science competition, because it forces students to become science communicators. They must explain their research in a way that’s compelling, that involves storytelling, not just data analysis.

There’s a chasm in our culture right now between the general public and science. The scientific community can get better at communicating what the work is, how it’s done and what value it has. But I think the general public also has a sense that it’s too hard for them to understand. I was very intimidated when I started to make this film, because I don’t come from a science background. I ultimately realized that was helpful, because I could stand in as a proxy for the audience: If I could understand it, the audience could understand it.

EOS: Sahithi, as a scientist yourself, how important is it to communicate what you’re doing?

SP:A lot of scientists are proud of the complexity of what they’re doing. They lose sight of the fact that it’s valuable not because it’s complex but because of what it can do. And they can’t make an impact unless the people who are helping them understand what’s going on. Solutions are made in the lab by scientists, but they’re brought into the world by businessmen, people in the humanities, salespeople, storytellers. So much more goes into bringing science into the real world.

Even the science aspect can’t be done alone. There’s a reason why solutions of scale are deployed by big companies. Individuals are limited. If I go on trying to push my project using only my own time and my own abilities, it’s not going to be nearly as impactful as if I brought in another five or ten people to work on it and make it a more robust system. I think the image of the lone scientist in the lab is a bad stereotype, because it limits what you can do with the technology you have.

I don’t know where people got the idea that science should be done solo. If you look at the very nature of scientific research, you measure a paper’s success by how many other people were able to do work based on it. Science is by nature very collaborative, because nobody solves these huge, complex problems alone. Nobody does it alone in the real world of science—it’s more in the depictions that it becomes a solo thing. In high school and college, you do all your assignments alone. Making it more collaborative from the beginning might help, but so would depicting it the way it actually works, with a lot of people coming together.

EOS: Laura, what makes film such an incredibly powerful medium for communicating science?

LN:A lot of feature films focus on the biopic of an extraordinary person doing an extraordinary project. They gloss over the details of the science, because they’re focused on the hero’s journey. I was really interested in showing the process of science. When you do science, you fail a lot. You do some research and you stop and start and don’t always get the results that you want, but you keep going. Watching young people tackle that in a very pure way was really inspiring, because they have a vision about what they’re doing and a clarity of purpose about the why of what they’re doing. The why is something that gets left out a lot when we depict science.

The why is also where you can find the emotion in the story. An environmental film focusing on a science fair seemed potentially very dry, so for me the goal was to bring emotion to the story and show how this was very personal, this was young people fighting to save their homes. Each of the students I chose for the film was very connected to the why of that they do. The challenge for me as a filmmaker was how to make this an emotional story and also something that was really compelling to watch.

I went about that by maintaining a kind of first-person perspective, so that you get a sense of what it would be like to be fifteen years old and facing this huge environmental crisis. I wanted the film to communicate the uniqueness of that perspective, because we can learn something from it. These kids automatically understand that they have to do something. They’ve taken the responsibility of committing to action. The other thing that really struck me is the fact that they don’t think about it politically. They think, “Here’s a problem that we have to fix.” Our generation got stuck in this political spin cycle where we can’t move forward because we’re blocked by financial and economic and political issues, but these kids don’t think about that at all. That’s the way we should be approaching it. I wanted to put that framing out into the world as a way for us to be able to learn from them so that they can become our role models as we look forward.

EOS: So, Sahithi, what is it like to be a teenager facing this huge environmental crisis?

SP:Every year we put on a play in school. The scriptwriters base the play on the students’ attitudes. Last year our play was about the environment. The last line was “If not us, who? If not now, when?” I think it’s as simple as that. We can’t do nothing. We can’t wait, because it’s only going to get worse. But I think there’s also the fact that it can get better. This is something people don’t appreciate enough. Right now, at this point in time, we have the technology to not just slow down climate change or stop it but actually potentially reverse it. It would be hard, things would have to be implemented at a huge scale, but we could. It’s not impossible. It’s not even a lack of abilities. It’s something we can do, it’s just that it’s not happening. Young people who are really engaged in this realize the potential is there. We don’t know if we’ll ever reach it, but we can’t not work towards it. We can’t go back and undo what’s been done, so we just have to do what we can now. It’s important to keep in mind that it can be done. It’s not beyond possibility to actually take things back.

Click here to find out more about the film. Inventing Tomorrow is now playing at the IFC Center in New York City. The author thanks Layla Hancock-Piper of Cinetic Media for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Earth on Screen. Copyright © Earth on Screen 2018