Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Becoming god

SCIENCE / The rise and fall of a scientist at the heart of a genetic revolution and the controversies it unleashed.

In 2018, the first humans with genomes altered by design were born in China. The twin girls were part of a project by a scientist called JK He Jiankui from Southern University of Science and Technology (Sustech) in Shenzen. The news caused a negative uproar around the world. As a result, the Chinese government initially put JK under house arrest. And after that, he eventually disappeared.

Make People Better Cody Sheehy
Make People Better, a film by Cody Sheehy

A sense of mystery

Make People Better unfolds like a thriller and tells the story surrounding his controversial project and disappearance. The topic itself, the idea of having the ability to bring into the world genetically edited humans – seems from the realm of SF books. The film offers a chronological understanding of how science evolved to this point and what possibilities this opens. Adding a soundtrack meant to accelerate the heartbeat to a story that unfolds fast-paced, the result is a dose of clarity and an opening of an extensive conversation. And it leaves one facing many angles and, by that, with more questions than answers and a sense of mystery surrounding a complex, controversial, and exciting topic with enormous future implications.

A sense of mystery is well-fitted for this topic. As the scandal unfolds and JK is put into house arrest, his voice can be heard in phone calls with Ben Hurlbut, an Associate Professor at Arizona State University, whom JK contacted wanting to tell his version of the story. Yet he’s only one piece of a big puzzle, the man who created a precedent but one part of a system.

His side is one thing and at the centre of the film, but the overarching story surrounding the case is not linear. The editing creates a chronology going back and forth, tying together its many angles. From JK’s phone calls to interviews with Antonio Regalado, the MIT Technology Review journalist who broke the news, to featuring prominent names in the field like George Church, footage from the scientific events and the very attempt of a New York Times scientist to find JK once he disappeared – what seems to become clear is, in fact, the magnitude and potential of these scientific discoveries.

A sense of mystery is well-fitted for this topic.

The people

Something important the film does is create the understanding that behind this story and the scientific abilities – there are people. That matters. As for the public, the topic can feel so out of their hands and removed from their reality that it can feel disheartening. The conversation of what’s the right thing to be done belongs to all of us, though, and the attention on it, as illustrated by how the media impacted the course of JK’s case – matters.

The range and depth of the layered topics the film touches are, in fact, an invitation – to learn about this, to know, and to ask questions. The questions sprout out of the events at hand and are legitimate, ethical questions surrounding the human implications of gene editing, considering how things can go wrong, the human cost of that, and what advancing on this path can mean for the future of humanity. Here, both dangers and potentials matter. And while the scientist can point to the potential, whether this is put to good use is still an open question.

The encompassing sense of danger around this is eventually not so much rooted in the science and what it opens to the world. Science is, in a sense, only the base, a starting point. But it is like looking at two worlds: science with its discoveries and what happens once they enter the world. What happens in interaction with the realities of our socially organised existence will define the future – in the dynamics between politics, media and the possible dangers ahead sprouting from the political and economic interests involved in the potential of genome editing. In bits and clues, the film reveals something behind the logic of these forces at play, which are eventually the ones to define the impact of this science.

Science in itself is neutral and is a wonder. If seen in themselves, there is magic in these advances. Scientists are often driven by curiosity – if not ambition and rewards – and the depth of ability to go this far into understanding a human’s very fabric is mind-blowing. But these discoveries don’t exist in a vacuum. Whether used to serve humanity while also deciding what serving humanity actually means – are things decided at the intersection between science, politics and economic interests. And the dynamic between these can be difficult to predict or control once past points of no return. What those points are is also difficult to predict.

Make People Better Cody Sheehy
Make People Better, a film by Cody Sheehy

Another brick in the wall

While JK was at the forefront and the first to cross the boundary or make this huge advancement – depending on how you want to look at it – he was not alone. But scientific advances build up like bricks in a wall, one discovery building on previous ones. JK was part of the inner circle of top scientists in the field. He built on their work and was inspired by them. He also had the support of the Chinese government until he didn’t.

JK resurfaced this year after three years of jail time in China. According to an article from January in El Pais, he wants to return to science to work on cures for genetic diseases in children and adults. His controversial project was not an accident done in a vacuum. Yet he is the man with the knowledge and the skills. What this film does well is illustrating how, with economic and political interests involved, anything can happen on a murky territory in which the rules are not precisely defined. One can disappear for a while, but now there’s a precedent. So what happens next?

Make People Better screens in competition at the 2023 Al Jazeera Balkans Documentary Film Festival.

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Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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