Inventing Tomorrow/Laura Nix

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, filmmaker Laura Nix follows six teens from India, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Mexico who are finding solutions to the problems threatening their generation. Earth on Screen, Director Talk’s sister blog, speaks 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. Click here  to find out more about the film and screenings. Availability: Opens New York City, August 31, IFC Center.  Thanks to Layla Hancock-Piper, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview.


EOS: 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 change have on Bangalore?

SP: There’s no river near Bangalore, so they built man-made lakes to provide for people’s water needs. The lakes were connected by channels. When it rained, the uppermost lake overflowed and filled all the others.

Bangalore used to be a retirement community, but suddenly all these IT companies moved there. The city grew really quickly, without an accompanying infrastructure. There were no sewage treatment plants, for instance. The trees and the gardens were razed to build homes and offices. 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 freshwater, the lakes became cesspools.

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

LN: Oftentimes with environmental issues you can’t see the problem, so people have a hard time taking it 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 communities 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 a 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 crowd sourcing 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, but I realized that was helpful because I could stand in as a proxy for the audience: I needed to understand it in order for the audience to 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 make an impact 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 scientists in the lab is a bad stereotype, because it limits what you can do with the technology you have.

L - R: Jose Manuel Elizade Esparaza, Jesus Alfonso Martinez Aranda & Fernando Miguel Sanchez Villalobos - Monterrey, Mexico. They invented a photocatalytic paint that would convert carbon dioxide into water-soluble chemicals that could nourish the local plant life. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.


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 conquering 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: What is it like to be a teenager facing this environmental crisis?


SP: Every year we put on a play in school. The scriptwriters based 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 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. I think young people who are really engaged in this realize that the potential is there. We don’t know if we’ll ever reach it, but we can’t not work towards it. It’s just something we have to do, because we can’t wait. 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.

Copyright © Earth on Screen 2018


The Yes Men Are Revolting/Laura Nix with Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno

Known for their activist media hoaxes designed to draw attention to social issues of critical worldwide importance, the Yes Men turn their focus on the biggest problem facing every person on the planet:  climate change. Inspired and recharged by the global movement that began with the Arab Spring and manifested in the US as Occupy Wall Street, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno take it to Shell and the International Conference on Climate Change.  Availability:  Opens June 12, New York City at the IFC Center; June 19, Los Angeles before expanding nationally; premieres on VOD and across all digital platforms June 9.  Thanks to Sara Sampson, Sara Sampson PR, for arranging this interview.


DT:  On my way over here, I was thinking about something you guys said in the movie: during Occupy Wall Street, people finally understood the connection between money, corporations, and the environment. It suddenly struck me that social movements are a little bit like science; you put two and two together, make a discovery, and then define your actions from there. Is that the way you guys work?


MB:  When I think of science, I think of repeatable results.  Your idea means something to me in the context of successful social movements.  It’s like a way of looking at repeatable results…you get enough people involved, you get enough pressure on the right kind of government that can change or that can be changed… Actually, maybe it’s more like a recipe than science.


AB:  I think you’re trying to say that when people get together in large numbers to make a change, they win.  That’s a repeatable result.  Anything good that we’ve got now comes from social movements.


DT:  The five-day work week.


AB:  The end of slavery, women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, the end of AIDS as a mortal disease.  All these things came out of a lot of sacrifice and social movements.  When people come together, they discover new things just by cross-pollinating, which I assume is the way science works. Shoot out an idea, and somebody else gets an idea, too.


DT:  For The Yes Men Are Revolting, you guys filmed a number of Yes Men actions, like launching the Survivaballs at the UN. Laura, as codirector, what kind of contingency plans did you make in case shooting was interrupted?


LN:  The thing I learned is that you can come up with as many contingency plans as you want, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to help.  I’m a big one for contingency plans. The Yes Men don’t do that as often, so you just have to do a lot of strategic planning on how the thing might unfold, or what will happen if a reveal happens too quickly. Then you have to be prepared for everything to just go out the window and be superfast on your feet and think really quickly to get the key moments of the scene as they unfold.  It’s the definition of best-laid plans going to waste.


DT:  Aside from making this movie different from the first two Yes Men films, why was it important to include your personal stories in The Yes Men Are Revolting?


AB:  For me it was important to show our evolution in the face of Occupy. To show where we get hope, we had to show us losing hope, and losing faith and giving up and wondering, What good is this action or that action? We wanted to show us getting frustrated in general and regaining hope when we saw a big movement. Some of the people in this movement said they were inspired by our movies, so we felt that what we do has a purpose. That was a big boost, and we wanted to convey that to audiences.  If you’re part of something bigger, that’s where the change happens.  It’s not in each action; it’s in the big picture, so never lose hope if your protest fizzles or your action doesn’t seem to achieve what it wants.  That was the reason for me.


MB:  I extend that to say that for this film we decided to be a little more straightforward and a little bit more honest with our viewers, and to show people a little more about who we are. I think that creates a more compelling film for most people. Because they feel they get to know us, they identify with our struggles, whether in the suspense of an action or the types of things that we go through that are similar to the things everyone goes through:  How do I balance my work, my relationships, my family with my desire to create change in the face of what seems like immovable forces but in actually are not? These personal stories help tell the bigger story, which is how to create change.


DT:  For me it also indicated that you guys are regular people. Folks lose sight of that and think you’re some sort of superheroes, but you’re not.  You’re people just like everybody else, which means that everybody else has the capacity to do what you do, at least in theory.


LN:  Exactly.  I think the other two films even went for that superhero approach as a way of driving the story, but I think the fact that Andy and Mike struggle and sometimes fail is really key, because in the experience of doing activism, you feel like you’re failing.  On any given day after you do an action or you’re at a protest, you don’t walk away thinking, Yay, we solved racism! You think, Oh God, did I accomplish anything?  Over time things do shift, and that’s part of how social movements work, but you have to have this amazing faith to keep going. Rather than hide that and act like these guys never have those doubts, it felt really important to show them having doubts and wondering about their impact in the midst of doing an action.


DT:  I think it was a really good choice. Andy and Mike, you’re both children of Holocaust survivors.  Did your parents ever talk about the Holocaust, and if so, what effect did that have on you?


AB:  My dad preferred not to talk about it, but eventually he did because I kept asking.  I realized there was something important there, so I learned, especially as a teenager, what he had been through and what it meant. I think it’s basically a lesson that you can’t rely on established structures to bring good things. You can’t just take things on faith—anything. It’s about how important it is to question and fight, and to realize that where positive changes come from is not power structures; they’re just tools, which can be either great or terrible.  Real change happens because of social movements.  I think that’s the ultimate lesson.


MB:  My mother was not a Holocaust survivor, but my father was.  He talked about it a little bit, and my grandmother talked about it a little bit, but now my dad’s increasingly talking about it.  Because he was relatively young during the Holocaust and most of the survivors are dead now, he tours around and gives speeches to schoolkids. That’s become his thing, since he’s one of the few who’s still alive. That was also another sort of creeping, unrecognized inspiration for including the personal stuff in the film; our parents are getting quite old, and there is definitely a lot of influence there in what we ended up doing, even though it was more intuitive, not really planned, not something I think about. Having a sense of justice—or a sense of injustice—is what came from it for me. Knowing from a very early age that there is injustice and having that told through the story of the Holocaust is what lay the framework for politicization.


DT:  Has your role as social activists changed?


AB and MB:  Yeah!


DT:  OK.  How?


AB:  In the first movie, you see that it all happened by accident. We found ourselves with a platform to talk about the World Trade Organization and the rules that were established to enforce the rule of capital, so that’s what we did. We gave these talks and filmed them and wrote books and made our point as loudly as we could. Then at a certain point a friend from Greenpeace approached us and said, Why don’t you try to focus on the Bhopal catastrophe and what’s going on there; it’s a really concrete example of everything you’ve been saying about what’s wrong with letting capital decide for itself. That was the start of working with organizations and groups of activists like Greenpeace. After that we just never looked back and always worked with groups.  At a certain point, we started doing workshops with grassroots activists and helping them come up with their own ideas. That was the Yes Labs, which we’ve morphed into an online version called the Action Switchboard. In July we’re starting to give an eight-week workshop course online. So that’s a big shift.


DT:  The University of Hawaii just announced plans to divest from fossil fuels by 2018, like two hundred other academic institutions.  Mike, in 2014 you gave the commencement speech at Reed College, during which you announced that you had convinced the board to divest, even though that was not the case.  A number of students were upset when they found out your announcement was a hoax. Does that matter?


MB:  It matters to them.


DT:  Does it matter in terms of the work you’re doing? Could something like that backfire? Many of these students are activists themselves.


MB:  Not really.  The work we’re doing upsets people, but we’re not doing it to make friends.  We’re not doing it to become popular.  It’s our role to sometimes upset people by making them believe a lie for a moment. If the students at Reed were upset just because they felt their commencement was ruined, that’s a different thing from being upset that the school isn’t divesting.  If they’re upset that the school isn’t divesting, then hopefully some of them are also motivated to do something about it.  If they’re upset because their commencement was ruined, then I would ask, What’s the purpose of the ceremony?

I did meet a few parents who were upset, but oddly the thing they were upset about was what I said about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs famously delivered a speech at Stanford where he announced that people should do what they love. At Reed, I was saying that the era of doing what we love is over and that we have to work to make the change we need.


AB: It also fits into the cumulative thing.  Some students might have been upset, but probably not permanently.  If some of the things we do backfire a bit, it’s not the end of the world, either. A lot of other people are also doing things that backfire a little bit, but cumulatively it leads to something. After all, as you said, two hundred universities are divesting.


Copyright © Director Talk 2015