In September 2012, Louis Theroux – one of my favourite journalists and documentary makers – wrote a post on his website of his top twelve documentaries. This made me think, had any documentary I’d ever seen particularly stood out? I remembered something I had seen a few years back about an international maths challenge, which caught my eye at the time. After some research, I discovered it was called Beautiful Young Minds, which was first broadcast in October 2007.
The documentary follows the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), which takes place every year between approximately ninety countries and hosts 6 competitors from each country. The challenge involves a process of elimination to decide the final 6 competitors in a series of tests designed to find the cleverest mathematicians in the country under the age of twenty.
I managed to find the documentary online and watched it again. Although the context of the show is the competition between the students to get a place in the final 6, the focus is much more on the students as individuals and in their day-to-day life. This is what intrigued me about the documentary when I originally saw it; what is life like for the cleverest students in the country, and how do they cope with the pressure of trying to reach the final 6 for the IMO? As the documentary progresses and we follow the lives of the students as they attend school and spend time with their families, there are several factors related to the students and the IMO that are looked at in detail.
The first thing that is very noticeable in the documentary, and which is perhaps not a complete surprise, is the lack of female students taking part. There is no ‘following’ of any female students in their hometowns or in their general lifestyles, as there is with several of the male students. By the time the final twenty one sit an exam and they are cut down to a group of 8, there are only 2 females left and neither of them end up going through. It is lightly touched upon by one of the trainers and the female students that women use their brains differently to men. They describe males as more logical and how they tend to process things systematically, whereas females are more empathetic and better at interaction, thus males have naturally better suited brain for mathematics. Clearly, the trainers understand that there will always be a larger number of male students than female students competing in these challenges.
It is also very clear from the outset that autism is a big issue for many of the students competing. One of the trainers describes how the majority of students they are dealing with are on the autistic spectrum somewhere, and how this is an environment in which they can flourish. Jos, one of the students being followed in this documentary, does not interact or connect with any of the other students, or indeed with any of the mathematics tutors with whom he would appear to have much in common with. He constantly comes across as fairly arrogant, refusing to partake in any non-mathematical activities or in any group work. Another of the students, Saul, goes on to describe Jos as having ‘Asperger’s syndrome in the worst possible way, the way that makes you obnoxious, arrogant and completely inconsiderate of other people.’
One of the trainers, who himself won a gold medal at the IMO in 1994 and 1995, can only describe receiving his medals as ‘good’ and is not able to elaborate any further; he cannot describe his feelings in words. This appears consistent with many of the students. Whether they are saying ‘I am pleased’ or ‘I am disappointed’ in regards to anything, it seems to sound and appear no different either way. One of the students, Daniel, who had recently become fluent in Mandarin in just 3 months, is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome during the documentary by the highly regarded Professor Simon Baron-Cohen who wrote one of the first theories on autism and its definition. After his diagnosis, Daniel simply explains ‘it’s good to be different’. Most of the students appear to feel this way.
The third topic most notably covered in the documentary is the issue of bullying. I am sure it would seem perhaps likely to viewers that this would be an issue for some of the students involved. The students in this documentary are very aware that, in general, they don’t fit in with their school peers and the school lifestyle. It is heartbreaking to hear some of the students talk about how unhappy their childhoods were, or to see them in their home towns or at school trying to avoid the other pupils. They say constantly that they fit in with their fellow math students better than their peers at school, although one of the students, Oliver, continues by saying, ‘I don’t think anyone here helps their image…no one is trying to improve their normalness.’
Regardless of how the students feel about themselves as individuals or when comparing themselves to others, you can only admire them for their dedication and hard work throughout the challenges that they face, academic or otherwise. One of the trainers explains that this is an environment in which the students can flourish with similar minded people, and for the majority, they seem very happy and content to do so.
The director of the documentary, Morgan Matthews, does an excellent job of not portraying the IMO or the students in a ridiculous or even an unusual manor, but rather just showing these people taking part in something which they love doing. From behind the camera, Matthews will ask the question why and ask people to elaborate further, but his gentle questioning does not appear too pushy or demanding of anyone, allowing the trainers, students and their families to talk at their own pace, to talk frankly about their own thoughts and feelings.
As the documentary was made in 2007 when most of the students taking part were around sixteen years old, most may now have attended University, and I would like to know what they are up to as they approach their 25th birthdays. It would be interesting to see if the participants are finally in a position where they can use their academic skills in their day-to-day life.
In finding the documentary and re-watching it, I have discovered that Morgan Matthews has recently directed a feature film based on the documentary, X+Y, which was released in March 2015 in the UK. Samuel Goldwyn Films has acquired the US right to the film, where it will be released in Summer 2015, under the title A Brilliant Young Mind. I will certainly be seeking the film out, and I am sure others who have seen the documentary will be doing so also.
Perhaps like the students in the documentary, I find it hard to put into words exactly why I love this documentary so much. All I can do is encourage you to watch it for yourself.
Beautiful Young Minds can be viewed here.
The trailer for X+Y can be viewed here.