Every summer dozens of Yakutian men leave their homes to trek the remote New Siberian Islands in search of a unique treasure: wooly mammoth tusks. They desperately hack at the brown-green pastures with picks and shovels, stricken by a gold-rush-esque fever.
The tusk hunters’ primordial work eventually leads them to an almost completely preserved mammoth carcass. While the carcass is somewhat valuable to them, it means a fortune for another group: clone researchers who want to resurrect the mammoth and turn sci-fi films like “Jurassic Park” into a reality.
Director Christian Frei’s and co-director Maxim Arbugaev’s new documentary “Genesis 2.0,” which won a special jury award for cinematography at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, explores this link between the hunters and scientists, and how their respective work is tied to our future. The film is timely, as a little over a month ago Chinese scientists claimed to have created the first genetically modified babies using CRISPR, a gene editing technology.
The Oscar-nominated Frei, who is also a producer and co-editor on “Genesis 2.0,” is not new to tackling global issues, having explored such topics as war photography and space tourism over the course of his career. Frei’s conceptual process could be described as very fluid. He never starts by doing research for a specific subject, instead letting the epiphanies come to him. Each of his six feature films were made four years apart.
“I was reading the book ‘Regenesis’ by George Church. Very similar title to my film. I was interested mainly in the second half of the book which was how synthetic biology will reinvent nature and ourselves,” Frei said to WSN.
In 2015, Church’s lab at Harvard University successfully copied frozen wooly mammoth genes and pasted them into an Asian elephant genome by using CRISPR. Church briefly appears in the film to explain the background of his experiment.
Frei explained that while reading a chapter in Church’s book on the wooly mammoth, he came across photos of the tusk hunters by Yakutian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva. The stark contrast between the world of the hunters and the geneticists hooked Frei on to the project.
“And this time I had a lot of reasons to give up because the first research [told me] the New Siberian islands are a prohibited area because [Russian President Vladimir Putin] opened a base, you can’t go there as a foreigner, and no ambassador in Moscow will get me out of prison,” Frei said.
Frei began researching the photographer Evgenia and miraculously discovered that her brother, Maxim, just so happened to be a talented filmmaker who had already won some awards for a short film he made. He became the film’s co-director. Maxim spent time with the hunters on the islands and Frei went to film the labs. In the film, the two both f daring, fearless protagonists who are driven by both curiosity of the future and fear of what they cannot control.
Maxim faced more physical challenges while traveling with the hunters. Since he acted as his own cinematographer, he was always directly in the middle of the action while dealing with weather, the barren environment and the occasional lack of food.
“[Maxim] was so excited because it took [the hunters] weeks to find the first tusk,” Frei said. “And they went home on the sledge and it turned down at the side of a lake and he fell into the water with his camera for two minutes.”
Maxim and his assistant were able to get the camera working three and a half days later.
The island portions in the film are a slow burn but feel more intimate. There are numerous lingering wide shots that display the beauty of the area and induce nerve-wracking tension: there could be a tusk anywhere that could change the lives of these men. The viewer is made to feel as concerned as the hunters for discovery. Maxim is also unafraid to take the camera closer when he has to, obtaining stories from hunters about their personal history and passion for the profession, and making the movie feel more human.
In contrast, Frei enters the fast-paced world of biotech companies by following paleontologist Semyon Grigoriev to Korea and China in an effort to resurrect the mammoth. Grigoriev is also the head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk. The bulk of their journey is spent at Sooam Biotech, a Seoul-based company that has cloned over 500 dogs. Compared to the islands, experiencing Sooam on screen felt like stepping into a sci-fi movie. While there, Frei spoke with another infamous scientist, Dr. Woo Suk Hwang, condemned by his peers for fraudulent research regarding cloning a human embryo in 2006.
“[Hwang] was like the pariah of the [scientific] world, you know, being on the Time magazine cover with a hanging head for this huge stem cell scandal — nobody wants to be there. And he never did any media until my film. He never did any other interviews for 11 years. It’s kind of my secret how I did it,” Frei said.
Hwang seemed surprisingly confident, giving tours of the company like a rockstar showing off his greatest hits. He spoke in interviews with an unrelenting zeal for the future of gene editing, yet his past still hangs over his head. Though Frei mentions in a voiceover that Hwang did not want to be asked about his scandal, the scientist brings it up himself to explain his perspective of the incident and how he dealt with the aftermath.
The emails Frei and Maxim would send to each other on their filmmaking journeys are used as a framing device to cut back and forth between their experiences. For the first time in his professional career, Frei enlisted the help of a co-editor, Thomas Bachmann. Maxim also came to Zurich nearly a dozen times to help in post-production and develop voiceovers. The link between the two worlds ultimately feels tangible, as if any change in one realm will send a ripple effect into the other and vice versa.
Are we going too far to control our own evolution? Have we even come far enough yet to take these next leaps? The film’s intent is not to answer these questions, but to get the ball rolling.
“We shouldn’t just be afraid of everything because we have to also learn,” Frei said. “The definition of life here is very strange.”
The filmmakers want to invite audiences to join the conversation with open arms and think about ethical questions that could shape the future of the scientific community and the world at large. Frei will appear at the IFC Center for post-screening Q&As, joined by leading scientists, on Jan. 4 and 5. One of the guests speaking with him on Jan. 5 is NYU alumna and Biotech Without Borders president Ellen Jorgensen.
Email Guru Ramanathan at [email protected]