FILM REVIEW: In "Inventing Tomorrow", teenagers are solving environmental issues without waiting for permission
Inventing Tomorrow follows six teenagers from four different cities around the world. They are competing in Intel ISEF, the Olympics of science fairs where qualifying high school students from around the world present original scientific research that is judged by a thousand adjudicators, all experts in their respective scientific fields. The teens followed by director Lauren Nix were chosen not for their chances of winning, but for the magnitude of their idea and potential to affect change in their local communities.
In the film's opening moments, sixteen year-old contestant Sahithi Pingali distills the teenagers' underlying sentiment into powerful words, stating: “It is inevitably our job as the next generation to tackle this [environmental pollution]”. Sahithi lives in Bangalore, once known as The City of a Thousand Lakes. Today, a majority of the lakes have fallen to property development, poor infrastructure and unprocessed sewerage contamination. The sewerage carries blackwater, household detergents and agricultural runoff, resulting in thick foam on rover surfaces rich in phosphates ad flammable gases. A beautiful shot follows foam clouds as big as bicycles billowing over a busy road, cars swerving to avoid contact as they float through the city. Lakes in Bangalore have caught fire, while other lakes have become so fertilizer-rich that plants overgrow the surface of the water, sending the underwater ecosystems into darkness and eventual collapse. These lakes look like grassy fields, and you would be forgiven for thinking you could run across the surface like a Jesus of environmental disaster. Sahithi works here, collecting water samples, building water testing machines on the cheap and designing an app for her and others to collect and process environmental data.
In Monterrey, Mexico three young men work on their invention in an conjunction with a local university. Monterrey is one of the most heavily industrialised cities in Mexico and has resulted in high levels of pollution and respiratory disease, a scourge that has affected the boys’ family personally. These young men recognise the challenges of curbing industry in a town that is so reliant on the money it provides for their families, and instead turn their sights on a method of reducing the existing levels of atmospheric contaminants a photocatalytic paint that, in the presence of sunlight, converts atmospheric pollutants into non-toxic molecules. As the big day approaches, the boys ask themselves questions more pressing to the teenage psyche: will I meet girls who like the same things as me? What if we don’t speak the same languages?
Tin mining in the Indonesian town of Banka is integral to the local economy, attracting mining companies and gainful employment, as well as local dredgers running illegal shanty operations. Both the legal and local collection methods involve pumping sand up from the ocean floor, sifting for tin, and returning the waste as brown clouds in the crystal blue water. In these dark drifts, lead and other heavy metals invisibly dissolve into the seawater. The locals know not to fish around the dredge operations, as there will be no fish swimming near the plumes. Two sixteen year-olds; Nuha Anfaresi and her friend Intan Putri watch the dredge operations and interview locals. The dredgers see no problem as the brown plumes eventually settle, while the fishers must travel further and further to find their catch. Working with a local university, the girls develop a hypothesis and a prototype waste filter. The sand of Banka beaches has a unique mineral composition, allowing it to adsorb heavy metals. Using the filter, constructed using local materials, Nuha and Intan hope to recapture the lead freed by tin dredging.
In the town of Hilo, Hawaii, sixteen year-old Jared Goodwin looks out across his local lake. As a child he visited this lake with his Grandmother. A nearby industrial plant dumped 550 tons of arsenic into the isolated lake. When tsunamis hit the island, the arsenic was redistributed throughout the town into parks, gardens and riverways. Jared conducts soil testing for arsenic at locations all around the lake and the town building a map of the preventable arsenic spread. Preventable, because it isn’t like no-one could have anticipated this environmental disaster, Jared’s Grandmother has witnessed two tsunamis first hand. The arsenic in Hilo is a symbol of preventable human-caused destruction, more insidious than directly poisoning innocent people, but just as harmful. If the industrial company that dumped waste in Jared’s lake gave more thought to their actions, their wouldn’t have blood on their hands and Hilo's community wouldn’t have poison in their food.
The teens speak with certainty when discussing their projects, steadfast in their respective missions. They don’t seem awkward on camera, unless they are facing the timeless adolescent challenges of meeting other teenagers and trying to not seem weird.
Inventing Tomorrow is a humanising look into the mindset of teenagers who have grown up in the knowledge of human-caused climate change. Their ambitions shine through their actions and are inspiring to watch. These teens of the Anthropocene are not waiting for permission or certification to begin cleaning our damaged world. With clean editing, excellent pacing, compelling characters, and a too-close-to-call competition where the ultimate winners are all of us, Inventing Tomorrow warms the heart and warns the mind that while these young inventors are picking up the burden of past mistakes, we all must all shoulder it alongside them.