When MAA President Joe Gallian approached filmmaker George Paul Csicsery with a proposal to create a documentary that follows the students on the U.S. International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) team through the rigors of the world's toughest math competition, Csicsery became enamored with the possibilities. The result is the feature-length documentary Hard Problems: The Road to the World's Toughest Math Contest, which will debut at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego on Tuesday, January 8 at 6 p.m.
Gallian's idea was to create a documentary similar in style to Spellbound, the 2002 film that chronicles eight contestants in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Nearly 19 months of shooting and 100 hours of video later, Csicsery had documented the demanding process that students and coaches go through to reach the pinnacle of mathematics competitions, the IMO.
Produced by the MAA, Hard Problems follows the 2006 U.S. team all the way from the earliest stages of testing and training to the final contest problems and prize ceremony at the IMO in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Along the way, Csicsery profiles each of the six members on the U.S. team, giving viewers a glimpse into their lives both inside and outside of mathematics, including their families.
Before the U.S. team heads abroad, Hard Problems concentrates on the selection process and on the effort put in by both the students and coaches to prepare for the intense two-day, six-problem competition. Once the team arrives in Slovenia, Csicsery gives viewers a peek into the large, crowded, yet eerily silent gymnasiums in which the students take the exams, and the relationships developed by students from different continents and different walks of life. The film also touches on some of the lesser-known details of the IMO, such as the complicated process of judging and scoring the papers. It also highlights the prestige that comes along with earning a bronze, silver, or gold medal.
This shot from Hard Problems shows students in the middle of the IMO exam.
To help get a feeling for what the IMO participants go through, everyone attending the January 8 premiere will receive a copy of the six problems the students faced in Slovenia. Also, the first 100 people to purchase the Hard Problems DVD at the meeting will receive a free CD containing solutions and commentary on the problems by Zuming Feng, coach of the U.S. team, plus all of the problems from the sequence of competitions leading up to the IMO.
Csicsery hopes that the film will attract audiences unfamiliar with the hard work that the young U.S. math prodigies put in and that it will "inspire others to see mathematics as those in the film already do—the most challenging and the most rewarding of pursuits."—R. Miller