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Genesis 2.0: a “mammoth lection” for science communication

By Samer Angelone, Ph.D.

“Ask a scientist about Hollywood, and you’ll probably get eye rolls. But ask someone in Hollywood about science, and they’ll see dollar signs: moviemakers know that science can be the source of great stories, with all the drama and action that blockbusters require” – Randy Olson
If you ask a scientist ‘what does it mean if your research project is about animal cloning, and at the end you fail to clone the animal?’ The answer would be ‘this is a negative result, which means usually no scientific publication’.
If you address the same question to a filmmaker ‘What does it mean if your documentary film is about animal cloning, and at the end researchers fail to clone the animal?’ The answer will be ‘I will have a great film, which may be shown and judged at prestigious film festivals, such as Sundance, and worldwide sold-out cinema theatres.
This has been the case for Christian Frei’s and Maxim Arbugaev’s ‘Genesis 2.0’!

Why such a contrast between experimental result and film project? Why is a negative result the killing point for a good science publication? And how can a filmmaker convert this negative result into a great film? The answer clearly lies in the magic of storytelling.

Oscar-nominated Christian Frei centres Genesis 2.0 around the possibility of creating a real-life “Jurassic Park”. If we analyse the film from a “scientist’s eye view”, the film is constructed around two plots:
  • the ‘field-work’ in the remote New Siberian Islands on the Arctic Ocean, where men gather to hunt for the “white gold” of mammoth tusks, made easier in recent years by climate change. The “hunters” search for untouched mammoth carcass, which would make the lab-work successful; 
  • and the ‘lab-work’ with the aim of cloning a mammoth, mainly through the laboratory finesse of Korean geneticist Hwang Woo-suk, a pioneer of dog cloning, who wants to clone a “real mammoth”; and Dr. Georg Church and the synthetic biology world who want to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo “mammophant”. The ‘field-work’ was successfully carried out in 2012, with the Siberian discovery of a mummified mammoth carcass, which died 39,000 years ago, and now conserves fur and liquefied blood intact. But the ‘lab-work’ is still being carried out, since the project of cloning of a mammoth is replete with unresolved ethical questions.
One of the main differences between scientific reporting and film storytelling is the selection of the events that each world (science and film) includes and the order of these events. For most scientific reporting, the events are facts lined up following the organizational structure, IMRAD - Introduction, Material & Methods, Results and Discussion [4]. Such reporting does not include two essential elements, ‘a human protagonist’ and the ‘obstacles’ that such protagonists face and seek to overcome them, the so-called hero’s journey [2].
The good filmmaker adds a human dimension to the story. As Frei mentioned “I'm interested in people's visions and dreams and conflict and daily lives and restrictions and handicaps and struggles.” The film is not a pile of sundry facts about field-work, lab-work and results, but about people doing the field-work and lab-work.

Science is permeated with story, but science publications are usually not, so that science communicators must rethink their art. If I could modify the usual organizational structure of IMRAD, I would add an overarching section called ‘human dimensions of research.’ This would be the superstructure for scientists to tell their tales about weaknesses, dreams and obstacles that they faced during their research. Scientists would use their words to paint stories of their research just as a good filmmaker relies on images. Storytelling scientists would finally be able to impress us with their important messages [3,1].

[1] Angelone S (2019) A new generation of scientists-as-filmmakers: Experiences gained in Switzerland. Science Communication (accepted paper). 
[2] Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero With a Thousand Faces, New York: Bollingen
[3] Olson, R. (2015) Houston, we have a narrative: Why science needs story. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 
[4] Sollaci, B. L., & Pereira, G. M. (2004). The introduction, methods, results, and discussion (IMRAD) structure: a fifty-year survey. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 92(3): 364–371.

Samer Angelone is a filmmaker and scientist, and holds a Ph.D. in biology and Master’s degrees in film studies and film direction. He teaches filmmaking courses at numerous universities, research institutes and film festivals (e.g. Locarno Festival and Visions du Réel Film Festival). He is the founder of the Global Science Film Festival and has directed several fiction and documentary films . He sits on the jury at prestigious film festivals (e.g. Cinemambiente Film Festival, Planet in Focus).