Doing the numbers: Ryan Ko, in George Csicsery's Hard Problems, tackles a math contest.

George Csicsery's Hard Problems

Michael Fox January 4, 2010

With more than 25 documentaries to his credit, George Csicsery is arguably the most prolific filmmaker in the Bay Area. Born in Germany after the war to Hungarian parents, Csicsery came to the U.S. in 1951. He majored in comparative religions at U.C. Berkeley and film production in S.F. State’s graduate program. A frequently published journalist and essayist as well as a screenwriter and filmmaker, Csicsery scored his biggest hit with Where the Heart Roams (1987), a feature doc about romance novelists and their devoted readers that traveled the festival circuit and aired on P.O.V. Since the mid-‘90s, most of his films have focused on mathematicians and scientists. Hard Problems: The Road to the World’s Toughest Math Contest, one of three docs Csicsery completed in the last two years, tracks the selection and success of the high school students who represented the U.S. in the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad in Slovenia. Currently airing across the country via American Public Television, Hard Problems airs locally at 6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 10; 11 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11 and 5 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12 on KTEH-Channel 54. An accomplished writer, Csicsery acceded to an interview via email.

SF360: How did you become the go-to guy for mathematics and science-related documentaries?

George Csicsery: That’s a very good question, since my background is in core humanities–history, literature, comparative religion and social sciences. Those are the areas I studied, and the areas that have informed most of my writing and film work. Before doing anything about mathematicians, I had made documentaries about pirates, prostitutes, romance writers. However, there was always a part of me fascinated by the history of science and ideas. I began to read about the lives of mathematicians; it’s a rich field, full of great stories. Then I was lucky enough to make N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdös (1993). That production provided an instant form of total immersion in the worldwide community of mathematicians. Erd”s was such a widely respected colorful character–a unique phenomenon really, that the film opened the doors to other mathematics subjects for me. I owe him for everything that’s followed.

SF360: Hard Problems is ‘presented by’ the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). Is it harder or easier to get the funding for a math or science-themed doc? Do you have any difficulty retaining editorial control when a professional organization, with its own agenda, backs a film?

Csicsery: Getting a film, any film, funded remains the hardest part of my work, especially since I try to choose subjects outside the obvious political or pop genres. While I was working on Hard Problems, I was also finishing Julia Robinson and Hilbert’s Tenth Problem (2008), a one-hour portrait of a pioneer among American women in mathematics. This is a film that took almost nine years to complete. I had no funding for the first seven of those years. When Joe Gallian, former president of the MAA, told me that he thought he could find funding for Hard Problems, I considered it a gift. One result was that we finished Hard Problems in less than two years.

As for editorial control, I must say that the nature of the organization supporting the project makes all the difference in the world. Of course, their agenda matters, but MAA signed onto my approach and concept for the film and supported it all the way through completion. Joe Gallian and lots of people at MAA and American Math Competitions (AMC) pretty much gave me carte blanche in every area. Perhaps if they were not mathematicians, their agenda would be less pure, more intrusive.

SF360: It seems that the festival and theatrical universes are not particularly inviting to math- or science-related films, leaving TV and the educational market. Your thoughts?

Csicsery: You nailed that one. Festivals as a rule are becoming a sore subject with filmmakers. There’s a proliferation of festivals living off filmmaker entry fees and giving very little in return. The big festivals go for hot pop subjects or celebrities, so they are very hard to get into. At the same time there a growing niche of science-related films no one has ever heard of except the people making science-related films. The niche festivals add a claustrophobic aura to an already difficult landscape of media distribution.

Science-related films are no more or less threatened by today’s distribution environment than other documentaries. There is a widespread crisis affecting all factual media, from video documentaries to newspapers, magazines and books.

Educational distribution and television are going through their own traumatic transformations with no terra firma in sight. As with the festivals, there is a proliferation of platforms with no clear model for financial sustainability. Not too long from now we could all be making films that only show on YouTube, but how many filmmakers do you know who can survive off of YouTube?

The educational market is stressed, too. The old model of VHS and DVD sales to institutions, libraries and colleges is dying. These institutions will acquire their films and videos online. We need to devise a way to handle downloadable distribution that gets the films out there and supports the people making films.

SF360: What are a few of the techniques for making science and math accessible and inviting to the average viewer who was scarred (metaphorically speaking) by high school chemistry?

Csicsery: Great question. I already told you that my background is in the humanities and social sciences. And this is exactly what I bring to making films about mathematicians. The secret is that people care about people and their struggles. I am no mathematician, and my understanding of deeper mathematics will always be limited. However, by presenting the people who do understand those ideas, and are passionate about it, you can break the ice. Everyone can get engaged in the story of a person who is really committed to finding out some new fact about the universe that might in the future lead to some fundamental change in the world. Letting people communicate these quests is a highly pleasurable experience. If some of the pleasure I feel when I watch and listen gets through, I know that almost any audience can be reached.

SF360: On one level, Hard Problems falls into the sports/competition genre of documentary. How did you find the balance between the viewer’s desire for narrative suspense, character development and, in this case, the promotion of mathematics education and achievement?

Csicsery: The characters are the key to Hard Problems. The suspense was already embedded in the setting–a series of elimination-type competitions culminating in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). As we get to know the students we want to know who will make it into the group of six chosen to represent the United States. Then, when the team goes to Slovenia, we want to know how these U.S. students will perform against teams from 90 countries. That part was simple, and provided a clear path for structuring the narrative.

The students themselves provided the meat of the film. Their individual stories and personal passions drive the film. Arnav Tripathy, one of the six, was equally gifted in music, and just as passionate. Zach Abel creates beautiful works of origami, while Yi Sun excels in every field he touches. Revealing these tidbits leaves us wanting to know more about how these students think and what drives them.

In terms of promoting mathematics education, I think that’s a function of the whole piece. I’m generally against preaching, and you won’t find a lot in Hard Problems. If the story is told well, those other ‘educational’ tasks are taken care of without explication.

SF360: You make a point of showing that most of the American IMO team members live in big houses with affluent parents, but you don’t make any other editorial comment about class, or ethnicity, for that matter. How come?

Csicsery: Most of the students on the 2006 U.S. IMO team lived in comfortable homes with professional parents who made sure they got every available education advantage, except for one. Zeb Brady was an anomaly, living with his two sisters and a single mother in Reseda, California and attending a public school. In some ways, he is the film’s most engaging character. It’s a credit to the generally haphazard educational system we have that Zeb’s talent was recognized at all. Once he found his level, he could benefit from the support mechanisms offered by other talented students in math, and the mathematical community in general.

I disagree about not making a comment about ethnicity or class. It’s clear in the film that most of the students on the U.S. team are immigrants, or children of immigrants. A student’s particular ethnicity is not the issue; the fact that immigrants take mathematics more seriously than the native-born population is. The film also touches on the growing number of girls participating in math competitions, featuring Melanie Wood, the first girl to make the U.S. IMO team, and now a coach for a team of U.S. girls that has participated in the China Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad since 2007.

SF360: In conclusion, can you share a few strategies for making high-school math prodigies and other intellectuals as sexy and fascinating as fashion designers, dolphins, Broadway dancers, reality-show contestants and other popular documentary subjects?

Csicsery: You saw Revenge of the Nerds, no? My hope is always to capture the passion inside people. What they are passionate about might be secondary, or it might be central because the idea is so cool or unusual. Either way, to watch someone deeply concentrating on something with every fiber of his or her being is very sexy. My favorite parts of Hard Problems are the shots of students working on problems or taking tests. Watching someone’s face and hands when they are in another world is a window to the magic of thought. I think people who make films about musicians have also learned this.

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