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USA Mathematical Olympiad: Filming $${\it Hard}$$ $${\it Problems}$$

On the evening of May 21, attendees at the awards ceremony honoring this year's U.S.A. Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) winners got a special treat. Filmmaker George Paul Csicsery screened—to the delight of the USAMO winners and their parents, MAA officials, and invited guests—about 45 minutes of clips from his planned documentary about U.S. participation in the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad.

Csicsery has titled his film Hard Problems—and hopes that, in the end, it will provide an engaging and illuminating glimpse of teenage mathematicians competing to solve math problems at the highest possible level. It follows up the book Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition by Steve Olsen, which documented U.S. participation in the 2001 International Mathematical Olympiad.

George Paul Csicsery on location in Slovenia.

Csicsery, perhaps best known among mathematicians as the director of the documentary N Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdös (1993), had the freedom to film the various steps in last year's Olympiad process. His documentary follows select students struggling through the two-day USAMO tests at the Harker School, in Saratoga, Calif., and elsewhere last April; the USAMO awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., in May; and the subsequent team selection test to decide the six members of the U.S. IMO team.

The team members (and stars of the film) were: Zachary (Zach) Abel, a graduate of Greenhill School in Dallas, Texas; Zarathustra (Zeb) Brady of the Magnolia Science Academy in Van Nuys, Calif.; Taehyeon (Ryan) Ko, a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H.; Yi Sun, a graduate of Harker School in Saratoga, Calif.; Arnav Tripathy of East Chapel Hill High School in Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Alex Zhai of University Laboratory High School in Champaign, Ill.

Csicsery and his crew followed the team to Ljubljana, Slovenia, where 498 young mathematicians from 90 countries competed in the 2006 IMO. The filmmakers photographed the students taking part in the colorful opening ceremony, preparing for and enduring the pressure-filled exams, going on excursions, and relaxing after the contest. Several scenes provided insights into the complicated process of judging and scoring the papers. A dramatic closing ceremony unveiled the winners. On the U.S. team, Brady and Tripathy earned gold medals; Abel, Sun, Zhai, and Ko received silver medals. The U.S. team placed fifth.

The filmmakers captured members of the U.S. team comparing notes after the IMO test.

Csicsery hopes to have his 90-minute documentary—which is produced by the MAA—ready early next year. Having already shot nearly 90 hours worth of film, Csicsery said that he needs only another 10 or 15 hours of footage before he begins the laborious process of editing the material into a dramatic story that he hopes will attract audiences unfamiliar with the trials, tribulations, incredibly hard work, and triumphs of the young, multitalented U.S. math wizards.—H. Waldman

News Date: 
Tuesday, May 22, 2007