Scientists can now alter the DNA of every living thing on earth or engineer new life-forms entirely, using a new technology called CRISPR-Cas9. Genome editing, as the practice is called, engenders a riot of political, social, and ethical questions, especially as it applies to humans. Is it OK, for instance, to genetically modify plants to produce more food for people? How about using it to eradicate human diseases like sickle cell anemia? Or modifying a woman’s genes to make her smarter, taller, more athletic? How about bringing an extinct species back to life?
Gene editing works by snipping out genes that produce “undesirable” traits or inserting genes that are more acceptable. Given the dramatic scenarios inherent in the procedure, it’s not surprising that gene editing has been a longtime presence in film, from The Fly (1958) to Gattaca (1997), Blade Runner (1982), and Sharktopus (2010).
Documentary filmmaker Christian Frei explores the bizarre world of gene editing in Genesis 2.0 (2018). This is not his first science film: he learned his craft by making corporate science movies instead of going to film school. He’s dedicated to capturing the reality and the research of the science he covers, but he’s also interested in targeting what he calls the “primitive brain.” As a result, Genesis 2.0 not only depicts the reality of gene editing today; it also captures the “slippery slope” feeling of dislocation we feel when we’re standing on the brink of the unknown.
Earth on Screen spoke with Frei in December 2018 about gene editing, the primitive brain, and the role of art in covering science. Following are excerpts of the interview. •Availability: Opens in L.A. January 18, with national rollout to follow. •Click here for trailer. •Thanks to Sylvia Savadjian for arranging this interview.•
EOS: Let’s talk about Legos. In your film, this innocuous child’s toy is turned into something much darker.
CF: All around the world, people can go on the internet and order BioBricks [man-made sequences of DNA that can be combined to produce synthetic biological systems]. It’s like playing with Legos: People get the DNA that has the features they want, then assemble the bricks the way they want. The awards given out at iGem, the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition [where students and entrepreneurs compete to engineer the best new life-form], are actually huge Lego bricks.
EOS: In other interviews, you’ve talked about making films that target the primitive brain. Did you target the primitive brain in Genesis 2.0?
CF: I believe strongly that our behavior is incredibly linked to the primitive parts of our brain. These parts are shaped by tens of thousands of years of being hunter-gatherers. We’re still very primitive today. I use the word primitive in a neutral way, because I feel it’s great to be primitive. It’s where we come from.
When you edit a film, you trigger much more in the primitive part of our brain than in our consciousness and intelligence. I’ll give you a strange example. I love to listen to audio books, especially in airplanes. It’s just a fact that if I don’t cover or close my eyes, I’m immediately attracted to a monitor showing a film in another seat. It’s a hierarchy in our brain—whatever is visual, whatever is movement, is attractive. We can’t consciously say, “That’s a bad film over there and I’ve got a great audio book right here.”
Consider sound. There’s nothing stronger in a film than absolute silence, and that’s again the primitive brain. You get incredibly awake when there’s silence because silence means danger. The birds have stopped singing because something [dangerous] is around.
EOS: In this film you’re dealing with the very controversial topic of gene editing. Your approach exacerbates the emotional discomfort some of us feel about gene editing.
CF: Yes, but on the other hand it’s also just a very normal instinct I have as a documentary filmmaker.
I made a lot of scientific corporate movies instead of going to film school when I was young, and I love science. It’s especially important today that we have a basic solidarity with science but also a critical distance. My personal feeling—though this is not the topic of my film—is that there’s nothing more dangerous than the worldwide spreading of bullshit anti-vaccination conspiracies. They’re absolutely untrue, but social media is spreading them everywhere.
We’re moving away from enlightenment, and that’s why we have to be very careful with the scientific world. We can’t just deliver fears to people and make them afraid of what scientists are doing. That would be too primitive. On the other hand, it’s also not our role to just applaud everything scientists are doing. That’s not our job.
There’s a lack of free media in China. This is a message in the film: We have to be careful that scientists are not just exporting more and more of the delicate stuff into China simply because it’s more restricted here [in the West]. It’s a very complex thing. I tried to approach the scientific world with passion and genuine interest and even humor. Let’s hear the theory of it and not just the dystopian dark cliche that everything they’re doing is horrifying. That’s just not true either.
My films are considered far away from Dali and crazy expressionist traditions of filmmaking. They’re all real, but you can develop a vision and tell a story based on fragments of the real while still touching a little of our subconscious and bigger-than-life fantasies.
Take the fantasy of a man giving birth. [In the following comments, Frei refers to Woo Suk Hwang, who runs a clinic in Seoul that clones pet dogs for an exorbitant fee. To date, he’s cloned 900 puppies for the rich and famous.] I’m totally convinced that when you see Dr. Hwang take the cloned puppy out of the surrogate mother’s womb, he’s giving birth. As a cloning guy, he knows that this mother dog has nothing to do genetically with this little puppy. He is actually the father and the mother of this baby. The mother dog is just a machine to carry it out.
[The following section refers to Harvard researcher George Church, whose lab is conducting experiments to “de-extinct” the wooly mammoth. They’re splicing the genes of a wooly mammoth, found in a frozen carcass in Siberia, into the DNA of an Asian elephant.]
EOS: You interviewed George Church about resurrecting the wooly mammoth. When he talked about making a hybrid mammoth/elephant (a mammophant) rather than a wooly mammoth, you said you were disappointed. What did you mean by that?
CF: Before I start filming, it takes me months to do the research and to develop my own attitude toward the topic. In the US, you already have quite a few films about the resurrection of the wooly mammoth. Now there will be a huge film produced by Fox Cinema that has the very American title Wooly. It’s about George Church, and it will tell this wonderful dream that the wooly mammoth will be around us again.
But it’s just not true. That’s the problem with the story. I went to California and spoke with Beth Shapiro, who wrote How to Clone a Mammoth. She’s a specialist in DNA. In a very nice way she’s saying, Hey folks, I’m sorry, but you probably won’t ever see a wooly mammoth. It’s just not possible; DNA is very fragile, postmortem it decays within hours. If they find a living cell then fine, but it’s really almost impossible.
What Church is doing is of course very real. He’s already creating a new life-form with his mammophant, a mix of Asian elephant and mammoth. When I interviewed him, I had to make a decision as a filmmaker—I saw the resurrection of the wooly mammoth as the manifestation of something bigger, which is this whole technological revolution that I’m covering in Genesis 2.0. The Discovery channel, on the other hand, would focus only on Church and say, Wow, how are you going to make a mammoth? Let’s bring you to the zoo and stand you in front of the Asian elephant and ask how you can make the tusks bigger.
Church himself doesn’t even say that his gene editing will result in a wooly mammoth. It’s the media constantly telling him, Come on, it’s a wooly mammoth. I wonder how Fox will do it in their film. The title is Wooly, not Mammophant, because Mammophant will sink in the movie theaters.
EOS: There’s a remarkable sequence in Genesis 2.0 where you say that humans and mammoths lived together for 10,000 years, then humans forgot what the mammoths looked like and invented the myth of giants to explain the huge bones they found. All of a sudden this thought popped into my head—it’s the failure of the collective prehistoric unconscious. I wonder if that contributes to the desire to resurrect the wooly mammoth.
CF: Why are kids so fascinated by dinosaurs after 15 million years? Is it still something remaining as a memory? The de-extinction thing is an interesting phenomenon. First of all, it’s very American. George Church wants to fix global warming by creating the mammophant. He thinks that thousands of these mammophants should go to the melting tundra, where global warming is releasing gases from the permafrost. The mammophants will keep the gases in the melting tundra.
EOS: You used a German word in connection with George Church, about the exhilaration of starting out for foreign shores.
CF: Aufbruchstimmung. Before you start a journey, you’re in the Aufbruchstimmung. When you rest on your journey, you’re in Aufbruchstimmung. You’re looking forward, you have a fever of Wow let’s embark, I want to go. You’re excited, you can’t sleep. This is Aufbruchstimmung. It’s a very positive feeling of I’m eager to go, I might also be a little bit afraid, but I’m just ready, why should I have to wait? I can feel Aufbruchstimmung in the students at iGEM. They’re embarking on a future. They’re fascinated and enthusiastic about the possibilities that are opening up here. It’s fun to edit life.
Copyright © Earth on Screen 2018